Continuing on my theme from this morning’s post about retirement planning from a mental-health perspective, I was reminded about a blog post I had read recently describing and sharing someone’s spiritual will. Also known as an ethical will, it is usually a written document revolving around a spiritual and moral legacy someone wishes to leave with their families. While I personally have not written one, I do sit and focus at times on what I would like my children to learn from us as parents in order to have emotionally and spiritually healthy children.
The concept of an Ethical Will has antecedents in Jewish writing throughout history, with perhaps the most well known being the Iggeret HaRamban, the letter written by Nachmanides to his son describing his ideas about having proper character traits and how to achieve them (for more examples, see Hebrew Ethical Wills: Selected and Edited by Israel Abrahams, Volumes I & II (Edward E. Elson Classic) [Hardcover] and So That Your Values Live On: Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them [Paperback]). While the author is young and writing this living spiritual and ethical legacy, I think if we encouraged people to examine and write what they want their families to know when they die, it might help in the process of facing mortality and not being overwhelmed by the changes all around.
One of the assignments for my class in Sage-ing is to write a spiritual will: a document which outlines what I hope to leave to those I leave behind, not in the tangible sense of possessions or money but in an emotional, intellectual, and spiritual way.
Writing this document — mine takes the form of a letter to my son — has been incredibly powerful for me. As it happens, I’m writing this first draft just on the cusp of Drew’s second birthday. I hope that I have a long life ahead of me. So as I articulate here what I hope to leave to him, it also becomes a kind of roadmap for how I hope to raise him.
I recommend this exercise highly. If you have a child (or children), what do you hope to pass on to them? And if you don’t have progeny, interpret the question more broadly: what do you hope to transmit to your friends, your students, your loved ones? What of you do you hope might live on in them when you are gone?
In case reading my spiritual will might be helpful or inspiring to you, I’m enclosing it below. (And if you do this exercise, and want to share with me/us the results or any insights the process opens up for you, drop a comment!)
The Spiritual Will of Rabbi Rachel Barenblat (2011)
I am writing the first draft of this spiritual will at thirty-six. I have every hope that a long life stretches ahead of me! But the sages of our tradition tell us to make teshuvah — to repent, to atone, to clear the spiritual decks — every day of our lives as though it were our last. We never know what lies ahead. So I write these words to you now, hoping that I will have many opportunities to revise them and add to them in years to come.
There are so many intangible things I hope I can leave to you. I want to give you an awareness of blessing. Life is full of blessings, wonders, unexpected grace. I hope I can awaken that awareness in you.
Following on that, I want to give you a sense of gratitude. I try to begin every day with the modah ani: I am grateful before You, living and enduring God; You have restored my soul to me; great is Your faithfulness! When you’re older, maybe you’ll learn some different melodies for this prayer. It’s not always easy to wake up with gratitude, but I try to maintain that as a practice.
(You have been one of my teachers in this, actually: though you sometimes wake up with shouting, the moment I appear in your doorway, you stop crying and beam at me. Sometimes I too wake up sad, but when I remember that God is standing over me lovingly, I try to let go of my sorrow and to greet God with a smile, just like you greet me from your crib.)
I want to leave you my optimism, my deep-seated belief that we can make the world a better place.
I want to leave you my drive to work toward transforming the world for the better. It’s our job to perfect and heal creation, and there are a million ways to take part in that work. What matters to me is this: be someone who builds, not someone who tears down.
I want to leave you my openness to experience. I wish for you many adventures. May you always be open to what the world brings you, and may you greet your adventures with curiosity and joy.
I want to bequeath to you a love of learning. I hope that as you grow and mature, books will become your lifetime companions, as they have been mine. Some of the most important books in my life have been the Torah, The Jew in the Lotus, Jane Kenyon’s collected poems. You will find your own texts which hold wisdom, compassion, insight. If you have a book, you are never alone.
I hope to pass on to you my deep love of Judaism, my appreciation for the richness and breadth of Jewish tradition, my desire to live with prayerful consciousness, my yearning for connection with God.
I hope to pass on to you an awareness of your deep roots. In our family, first and foremost: your roots are Barenblat and Zuckerman, and when you go further back, they are also Epstein and Campbell, and further still, and further still. You are rooted on my side in the soil of south Texas where I was born and reared, and in the soil of the Czech Republic and Russia and Poland from which my grandparents came. You are rooted on your dad’s side in New York, and in south Boston and Long Island, and in Germany and Newfoundland.
In addition to your Hebrew name (after my grandfather Eppie, of blessed memory) you also have a Ghanaian name, which represents our hope to connect you with Ghana where your dad used to live and work and where part of his heart still dwells. I hope to pass on to you our love of the wide world, our sense of connection to places and people both near and far. I hope your dad and I can pass on to you a certain kind of cosmopolitanism, an awareness that we are all part of the global human community.
I want to give you laughter. Giggles and cackles and deep belly-laughs: we have enjoyed all of these together, and I hope you are always able to find joy and laughter in your life.
I want to give you the knowledge that life won’t always be easy. I have walked through the valley of the shadow of deep depression, when I couldn’t access hope for healing, when I couldn’t even pray. I want to leave you an awareness that there will probably be dark days in your life, difficult days. And I also want to leave you with an awareness that there is healing, and there is hope. May you be blessed, as I have been, with people who are willing and able to help you through whatever dark times are ahead of you. May you always have friends who will care for you.
Be kind to yourself and to others. Be compassionate. Seek to open your heart, even when doing so sometimes hurts. When you reach the end of your life, you may regret being hurtful, but you will never regret having been kind.
Please know that I love you unreasonably and without measure, and I will always love you more than words can say. You probably won’t remember the nights I rocked you in my arms, the nights I paced the hallways with you on my shoulder, the times I sang you Shlomo Carlebach’s setting of the Angel Song before bed. You may not remember the sound of my voice singing “Sweet Baby Drew,” our variation on the James Taylor song, before bed each night. But I hope that the love and care that your dad and I have tried to extend to you during these first two years of your life are soaking into your soul, and that you will always know that you have our love to draw on.
I want to bless you with
connection with God
connection with your roots
wings which will take you wherever you want to go
(I initially mis-typed: wherever you want to God!)
trust in the universe
teachers who will guide you
a heart which is open
the knowledge that you are loved by an unending love.