Making the decision to write an ethical will can feel fulfilling, even empowering. However, sitting down and writing one can be truly challenging. The wonderful thing is that there is no right or wrong way to write an ethical will, and yours can be as simple or complex as you wish. (See accompanying article “What is an ethical will?”)
A good place to start is to think about the larger themes that ethical wills typically address to decide what you want to share with family and friends. According to Dr. Eric L. Weiner, author of Ethical Wills: Words from the Jewish HEART, five major themes to consider are Heritage and Hopes for the Future; Ethics and Experiences in Life; Atonement and Appreciation; Religion, Spirituality and Core Beliefs; and Tikkun Olam and Treasures (gifts of value given to others).
After considering these larger themes, it is helpful to drill down further and decide what specific topics you want to cover in your ethical will. According to Ethical Wills & How to Prepare Them: A Guide to Sharing Your Values from Generation to Generation, edited by Rabbi Jack Riemer and Dr. Nathaniel Stampfer, some topics worth examining are:
• Formative events in life
• People who have influenced me most
• Important lessons learned in life
• Mistakes made during life that I would hope a loved one would not repeat
• Causes and organizations important to the family.
Fortunately, several good books are available to help you craft a personal and meaningful ethical will. These books include prompts to help get you started as well as examples of both historic and modern ethical wills.
The statements from the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Phoenix Endowment Book of Life Benefactors are good examples, too, as they are akin to the messages conveyed in ethical wills. These messages reflect how our community’s members feel about their lives, their values and how they want to be remembered by future generations.
One of these benefactors, Corinne Ehrlich, wrote in 1998, “From the time I was a small child my parents provided me with a thorough education in the values, beliefs and history of the Jewish religion and the Jewish people. This knowledge has made me very proud of my religion and has provided me with the desire to work for the enrichment of our Jewish community and the assurance of a wonderful future. The rewards of this involvement have been many, especially the friendships established by working together with our people and the great joy in seeing our Jewish community grow and flourish. Need I say anymore!”