Friday, September 22, 2017

Shabbat Shuvah: Ethical Wills

            Shabbat Shuvah Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Ha’Azinu, the second to last in our yearly reading. As I’ve mentioned the last several weeks, the whole book of Deuteronomy is basically Moses’s farewell address. The parasha is really the peak of that address. At its conclusion, Moses will go up onto the mountain where he will die, to get his one glimpse of the Promised Land, a land he will never enter. Then the last portion is just … well, we’ll get to that after Yom Kippur.
            Ha’Azinu is Moses’s legacy. It is written in a poetic way, sharing with the Israelites promises of their futures, and bequeathing to them all the learning and love that Moses inherited from God in his own lifetime. He offers up the example of his relationship with the Divine and his leadership styles to the people. In so many ways, this is his ethical will. Ethical wills have traditionally been core to Jewish continuity. Every parent has the chance, and some would say the obligation, to leave an ethical will to their child. This is a chance to leave your own Torah, your life story, your hopes for the future, for those who will carry it forward. It doesn’t have to be left to parents and children either. Those who choose not to raise a family of their own can still leave their ethical wills to their nieces, nephews, students, younger friends, proteges, sous chefs, an entire nation that looked to you for liberation whom you led through a desert for 40 years, etc., you know, the usual non-children legacies.
During my Master’s program via Gratz College, I took a class on Ethical Dilemmas, and the syllabus closed by focusing on Ethical Wills. We read the will of Judah ibn Tibbon, one of the most famous ethical wills in our history. I forget exactly what the assignment outline was to respond to it, but I wrote a response in the form of Judah’s late wife coming to proofread the will, and being dramatically critical of it. I reread that assignment as I was writing this d’var Torah, and aside from relying heavily on some stereotypes that wouldn’t have yet applied in 12 century Provence, I still found myself quite funny. Most of the complaints were how Judah basically wrote out his wife’s life in the will. He talks a lot about how he toiled in caring for their child, Samuel, and how hard it was to raise him as a baby. He doesn’t mention his wife’s efforts in the matter at all, despite likely being much greater. Many of the ethical wills Jewish scholars have uncovered from this era, when they became very much in vogue, are indeed by men who act as if raising their children was their job alone. True, so much of the teaching and instilling Jewish values into the children was the father’s job, and so it’s not unreasonable that that’s where the men focused, but the commandments tell us to honor father and mother, and yet the mothers’ voices are too often silenced in these documents.
            That’s why it is so significant that we do have one famous ethical will left by a woman, Gluckel of Hameln, whose Yartzheit is actually tonight. She lived in the 17th and 18th centuries, was twice-widowed, but managed to raise her 13 children by continuing on businesses left to her by her first husband. She had a strong aptitude for business that allowed her to flourish in spite of the difficulties of being a woman without a man at that time, and despite the limitations of so many men refusing to do business with a woman. Her second husband was terrible at business and destroyed her finances, but after his death, she was still able to continue and survive. Having the recordings of a woman who was not born to greatness, not a scholar or the wife or daughter of one, but just an ordinary woman who manages to live extraordinarily, and pass down the legacies of Jewish women, so often erased from history, is really not something to be overlooked. Tonight on her yartzheit, we remember her and her legacy and say, may her memory still be for blessing, centuries later.
            As we read Moses’s ethical will to the people of Israel tonight, on Shabbat Shuvah, and we reflect on other famous ethical wills in Jewish history, we take the time to pause and reflect on our lives. If we were to be sealed in the Book of Death this Yom Kippur, what is the legacy we are prepared to leave in 5778? If we are not prepared for such a fate, then it is time now to make something, create something, fix something, teach something. As part of the aforementioned graduate class, we also had to write our own ethical wills. I will admit it is an exercise I have not revisited, but it’s not a bad idea as part of the season of teshuva. Beyond the drama of the high holy day liturgy, it is unfortunately true that none of us can ever know when our time is up. At the turning of each year, we should ask, what is our legacy as we stand now? What do we wish was our legacy instead? What can we do, assuming we have the chance, in the coming year to make that wish a reality, or to at least come closer? May you each have long and meaningful lives, and may you leave behind a Torah of love, compassion, learning, and action, when the time comes. Amen, Shabbat Shalom, and Shana Tova.  

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