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An Ethical Will for My Children

Some years ago, I wrote this ethical will for my children. With a few adjustments, I shared it with the congregation as a High Holy Day sermon. I still stand by these values.

As Congregation Or Ami’s New Dimensions (activities for adults only) prepares for a seminar on Writing an Ethical Will (Monday, November 17, 2008 at , I went back to my Ethical Will to see what I wrote. I still like it:

On Aaron’s Advice: An Ethical Will for My Children
Rabbi Paul J. Kipnes, Congregation Or Ami, Calabasas, CA
Rosh Hashana 5763 / September 2002

When Becky asked me to officiate at a minyan after her father Aaron’s funeral, I stepped forward without question. Friends help friends. It was only as I stood there, for two nights, before our extended group of friends, before Becky, that I realized the daunting task of trying to find words of wisdom to comfort someone whom I considered more a family member than a friend. Doctors do not operate on their loved ones; rabbis probably should not officiate for family members either. It is just too close.

But there we were. We prayed the prayers, moving forward without comment. Becky seemed to take strength from the regularity of the ritual and comfort from the companionship of the community surrounding her. I worried about what to say to bring uplift to her heart, solace to her soul. I was saved, however, by none other than Aaron himself – yes, the deceased. Before heart surgery ten years earlier, being well aware that “you can never be sure when the end will come,” Aaron, wrote an ethical will to make sure that his ideals would survive. A short, two-page letter to his loved ones, the ethical will bequeaths to them the values he holds most dear. As the letter was read aloud, Aaron himself comforted his daughter and his grandchildren, and led us all with wisdom and humility to a meaningful moment of kedusha, of holiness.

A few weeks later, emboldened by Aaron’s example, I sat down to write. You don’t need 10 years as a rabbi officiating at funerals to know that all it takes is some freak accident, unexpected disease or, however unlikely, some terrorist action to end your life prematurely. So I accepted for myself Aaron’s implicit invitation to impart words of comfort and wisdom to those who would survive me. I will share now but a few of the words I have written down in an ethical will to my family. Should I live to watch my three children mature, make their way in the world, and create their own lives and family, I hope to have passed on these values both in name and by example. But if not, God-forbid, I want them, and you, to know what is in my heart as you all continue to live your lives. With the High Holy Days upon us, this just might be the most important sermon I write this year.

To My Beloved Children:

We live in a world in which celebrity seems more important than what good you have accomplished. Where America’s leading businesses and business watchdogs lied to thousands of investors who counted on their honesty to plan for their future. … Where anti-Semitism – unadulterated hate – has raised its head in Europe, endangering our people yet again. … Where the bravado, self-interest and violence of the Palestinian leadership destroyed our realistic heartfelt offers to end the Mideast conflict. These are frightening times for our people, for all people.

With so many spurious values abound, I find myself contemplating the awesome responsibility we have to guide you in life. As you navigate the uncharted waters of life, I wonder, have we filled your life raft with a strong enough set of ethics and ideals to keep your heads above the raging waters?

The key, it seems, is to remember that you have all you need to bring goodness to yourself and into the world. Do not allow yourself to be limited by others, whether because of your gender… or your religion, race, orientation or age. These provide you with unique tools with which to navigate our world. You can do anything you put your mind to, anything you truly wish to accomplish. By the way, that is the central lesson of the modern Bar and Bat Mitzvah. Having completed an arduous, complex task, you will have learned that nothing is too difficult or beyond your reach.

When each of you was born, we celebrated with a Jewish ceremony. Surrounded by family and friends, and delicious desserts baked by PaPa and LaLa, we shepped nachas, shared the joy. At its most basic level, these ceremonies proclaimed that you were Jews and that we intended to bring you up as Jews. More significantly, it taught, even before you could understand it, that you are inheritors of a sacred tradition. As you grow, immerse yourself in our Jewish values and become our ideal, an Or LaGoyim, a light unto the nations.

My children, you are part of Am bachor, a chosen people. Not necessarily better than others. Merely chosen for a special responsibility. You are chosen to receive Torah values and effectuate them in our world. To help you understand this, we have prioritized our lives around enabling you to gain a strong Jewish education, learning the teachings of Torah. Torah encompasses all that is good and worthy. Hafach ba v’hafach ba d’chula ba – turn it and turn it, everything is in Torah: our stories and traditions, rituals and ceremonies, ethics and values. Taken together, Torah goads us into making our special contribution to this world.

Of course, the pursuit of wisdom begins with Torah, but should not conclude with Jewish learning alone (although your ability to evaluate the world will be severely limited without it). As Am hasefer, the People of the Book, we value secular scholarship too, for its own sake and as the key to our survival. Complete your studies with vigor; pursue college and advance degrees thereafter. Jewish knowledge and secular studies, combine these and you will be able to more easily pursue your dreams. It is a marriage made in heaven.

Speaking of marriage, back in ancient days, I would have had the privilege of picking out your spouse. Today, thankfully, you choose your own. Allow me to share with you what I have learned about love and marriage. Look not to movies or Madison Avenue advertisements for guidance in your search for a soul mate. Look, rather, for a partner who loves you, who helps you realize your fullest potential, with whom you feel enabled to expand your horizons. And find someone who has a commitment to Jewish life. With them you will share a heritage, and an ethical and spiritual encoding that was programmed into you at the moment of conception, nourished within you from the time you nursed at your mother’s breast. With such a partner, your life will be easier and, I believe, fuller. Yet whomever you choose, Jew or non-Jew, a male or a female, know that we will love you and your partner, and will try to support the life you build together.

I have learned that marriage takes as much if not more work than whatever you get paid to do, but the rewards of these efforts far exceed the paycheck you bring home. Continue to date your partner throughout your life. Make your time with him or her a priority, even when you have children, and share the responsibilities equally. That sage Dear Abby wrote, infatuation is to marriage like fireworks are to fireflies. Though infatuation (even lust) will light up your skies with an overwhelming display of light and noise, a mature, strong marriage – like a firefly – will provide you with a beacon of light to guide you home after a long lonely day in the world. And that, the beacon of light shining forth from my wife’s love, is what keeps me sane in our crazy world.

Mishpacha, your family needs to be a high priority. Mom and I made decisions about where we wanted to live based on our desire to raise you in proximity to your grandparents. Yes, family has the ability to push your buttons like no other, but they also have the ability to accept you and love you unconditionally. Find a way to love your family and they will sustain you through the most challenging of times. Let yourself be separated from them when you are adults, and the tragedy of separation will be passed on as a model for your children as they develop their familial relationships. So call your adult siblings regularly and your parents even more. Throughout your life, make Shalom Bayit, peace in the home, one of your goals, and you will find unparalleled strength as you to venture out into the world.

About work, I have learned this: Find a career path that will allow you to bring goodness into our world. Making money for money’s sake, or even just to support your family, will slowly consume your soul. At the end of the day, you will not sustain yourself without seeking a greater good because the sole pursuit of money and material things is unending. And by the way, don’t try to keep up with the Jones’, because you can never keep up with the Jones’, because there will always be more Jones’ who always will have more.

Be ethical in all that you do – especially at work. Not because otherwise you will get caught – which ultimately you will. Rather, be ethical because it is the right thing to do. Always remember that Hebrew National hotdog commercial. It says it all. You are “responsible to a Higher Authority.”

As you prioritize your time, seek out a synagogue that speaks to your heart. Help it fulfill its mission to educate Jews and to respond Henaynu, that we are here to support each other. Attend services frequently. They will heal and uplift your soul in ways that you will recognize only after you have expended the energy to show up. Al tifros min hatzibur, do not separate yourself from the community, since within community, can we best feel God’s loving Presence.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. Sha’alu Shalom Lirushalayim. Nowhere is the need for shalom more clear and yet often more difficult than in relationship with the State of Israel. But Kol yisrael areivim zeh bazeh – all Jews are responsible for each other. As you know, I am drawn to Israel even now, when most people are staying away. I have traveled there in both good and in difficult times. And I will again. Ahavat Yisrael, the love of Israel that courses through my veins, calls me to stand on her soil and to speak with her people, even at times that others deem dangerous. Just as I cannot imagine a world without you, neither can I imagine a world without Israel. As such, we all must wrap our arms around this tired little nation, comfort and support her, and tell her that Od yavo shalom, peace one day will come.

We can discern in our hearts a special love for Israel as we learn about her past and her present and as we visit her unique, precious places. As this love and connection grows – even before it fully matures – we need to support Israel with our time, energy and money; and dedicate ourselves to her wellbeing b’chol l’vavcha uv’chol nafshecha uv’chol m’odecha – with all our heart, soul and might. That too is part of the purpose for which God placed us on this earth.

You know that I have been studying Talmud with my colleagues. I recently studied the Talmud’s short list of six responsibilities of a parent to his or her children. Curiously, number six was “teach your children to swim.” Why swimming of all things? Did the rabbis witness their own set of tragedies and understand the simplicity of prevention? I wonder if they recognized the poignant symbolism inherent in swimming: that on occasion we all will be thrown into waters over our heads and we need the skills to keep ourselves afloat. In teaching you to swim, we endeavor to provide instruction in more than just the physical act of treading water and self-propulsion. We confirm that within each of us are many diverse tools – physical, emotional, spiritual – to help us navigate the currents of life. We have taught you the power of seeking out others for help and the wisdom of listening closely to their advice and counsel. I hope we have taught you that turning to others for support – friends and school counselors, rabbis and therapists – is the mark of courage and strength, not of weakness or shame. So seek out help when you need it.

Life, you may be learning, is filled with mysteries. The greatest perhaps is why God placed us upon this earth. Recently, I have discovered a hint of that ultimate purpose. Embedded in Torah, in a portion we read every Yom Kippur, are the words: Kedoshim tihiyu ki kadosh Ani Adonai Eloheichem – you are holy because I, the Eternal your God am holy. Life, I believe, is supposed to be about Kedusha, holiness, about those significant yet indescribable moments of inspirational uplift that result from right-minded actions and intentions. Holiness, like spirituality, is not just a state of being; it is a manner of acting within the world by being compassionate, pursuing justice and seeking truth. When we do this right, our actions reflect shutaf Adonai, a partnership with God.

Well, these are the values I cherish. Values which carried me through the dark days of years gone by. I hope they carry you through too. I wrote these down, on Aaron’s advice, as a way to guide and comfort you in the years ahead. Perhaps one day soon you too will follow Aaron’s example and write down your ethical will. It truly is a holy task.

For now, mine kinderlach – my children and the children of my Torah teaching – honor my memory, and your family’s memory, and the tradition passed down midor lador, from generation to generation since the time of Moses, by being holy, by being kadosh. I know you are… May you know you are…

I love you. Love, Daddy.


  1. manker says:

    i think my nightly prayers fairly regularly include “pray for the peace of jerusalem”… what a beautifully “hit the heart” post

    blessings and shalom
    gp in montana

  2. Julie says:

    Goodness, is that a cry!!! Your words are beautiful beyond measure– a treasure for a child to have when the time comes that they no longer experience your essence in life. I am moved and overwhelmed at the prospect of writing my own…
    Thank you for sharing something so personal. I so appreciate your example.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I want to thank you so much for sharing your living will~
    I am so touched (and honored) to have shared in such a private gift.

    I am sitting at my desk, weeping LOUDLY, from your sentimental words of love and wisdom to your children. I also love the way you write about your deep love, respect and admiration for Michelle

  4. Anonymous says:

    I wanted to attend the meeting this evening, but I was volunteering at my daughter’s school for the Book Fair. After reading your e-mail, I am upset that I missed it. The words you wrote to your children (and then kindly shared with us) were beautiful. I missed the meeting at Temple, but I will definitely start writing on my own. Thank you for sharing this and thank you for the classes that you offer. The classes that I have attended have been great. I really appreciate it!

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