By Rabbi Joshua Stanton, Hedy Peyser, MSW and Andy Siegel, MHA
We are living through a pandemic of biblical proportions. It is causing a secondary pandemic of loneliness – especially for students and seniors. The pandemic will change us all, shaping our lives and the way we understand it. But we need not be passive participants in this upheaval. Our tradition has myriad ways to approach moments like this, including a special document, known as an “Ethical Will.”
An Ethical Will is not a legal document, but a spiritual one in which we convey our most important life’s experiences – and the lessons that we have gleaned from them – to the people closest to us. While you can read our full set of guiding questions at the end of this article, they fall into three basic categories about our lives:
What did it mean?
First, the question of who: Who were the major influences upon your life? What role did they play? How did they play it?
Second, the question of what: What were the major events of your life? What are the memories that stand out? What are the unique details of each one?
Third, the question of meaning: Unlike oral histories, ethical wills provide an opportunity to reflect on what people and experiences meant to you. Ethical wills provide a unique opportunity to share your wisdom with those you love.
The three of us saw the power of ethical wills over a decade ago through a program that we ran at the Charles E. Smith Life Communities, known as Lessons of a Lifetime: The Ethical Will Project. It brought together seniors and students to record the wisdom and ideas of seniors through a series of interviews – and it encouraged students to record their own ethical wills in the process. The stories that they recorded were a treasure for families to behold, providing an invaluable legacy. It also brought together people of all generations around a common purpose and belief that we all have something to teach from our lives.
The students involved in this project, gained self-confidence and a desire to take initiative in other aspects of their lives.
Right now, many students and seniors have more time on their hands and long for social connection in spite of physical distancing needs. Even using the latest ways to video conference, conversations veer towards the superficial. Writing an ethical will can break through platitudes –between grandparents and grandchildren; aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews; or friends who feel like family. It can also connect generations in new ways that will endure long past the pandemic itself.
If there is a lesson from Jewish history, it is that world-changing events require of us introspection and call us to rearticulate the innermost values that guide us through life. We can begin that process together by recording our ethical wills in pairings that nourish our minds and hearts at the same time.
Joshua Stanton is Rabbi of East End Temple and a Senior Fellow of CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. Hedy Peyser, MSW, served as the Director of Volunteers at the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington for 43 years and retired in 2014. She was also Professor of Sociology at The American University. Andy Siegel, MHA, is Vice President of Business Development for Goodwin House Incorporated and teaches Healthcare Management as an Adjunct Faculty Member at the George Washington University in the Milken Institute School of Public Health.
My Ethical Will
Lessons of a Lifetime
What Have I learned From Life That I Want to Share?
This is a gift to your family
Feel free to change the order of the questions, skip some or add new ones,
- What values are important to you? (For example knowledge)
- What are your spiritual beliefs?
- If you have children and/or grandchildren, what thoughts would you like to pass down to them?? If no children, what thoughts would you like to pass down to others?
- Were there any books or movies that influenced you? In what way?
Words of Wisdom
- Can you offer any advice to other’ s about living their lives? Or, are there any words of wisdom you may wish to impart to the next generation?
- What would you want your family to know about you that they may not already know?
- What have you learned from your life experiences and what have they taught you?
- Have you ever had a life-altering experience or event that changed your life? How did this event affect you? Was this the most significant moment of your life?
- What was the most meaningful event in your life? ? Did it change or alter the way you view the world?
- What made your life worth living? Was it a special relationship, your work, your beliefs, hobbies or interests?
- Did you fulfill all the dreams of your youth? If not, which didn’t you fulfill?
- What have you learned from your parents or grandparents that you wish to share with your children?
- Who is or was the most important person in your life? Why? What did you learn from that person?
- Were there any others who greatly impacted your life? Why and how?
Regrets and Gratitude
15. What you are especially grateful for?
16. Do you have regrets – something you did or did not do?
17. What are you are most proud of?
- What was the hardest decision you ever made?
- What hopes and/or dreams do you have for your loved ones?
- Is there anything in your life that you should have done differently?
Change and the Future
- If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be and how would you change it?
- If you only had one year to live, what would you do?
© 2007. Hebrew Home of Greater Washington
* In 2006, the authors, Hedy Peyser, and Josh Stanton, created Lessons of a Lifetime, the Ethical Will Project to enable seniors to share the lessons they learned and wished to share with their families. They developed a format of 22 questions which allowed the participant to talk about their values, goals and aspirations.
I came across your site while reading the obituary of a friend from years ago (John Steinbruck) and read a commentary that was posted about his life and connection to your work. Then I saw the article about the Ethical Will project. As I am facilitating a course at a Methodist Church in Hershey PA that compares the current wilderness journey to that of the Israelites after their release from the Pharaoh. I’ve been searching for what other religious churches and synagogues might be doing during this time. I really liked the project and may suggest it to the staff at the church which is First United Methodist Church in Hershey. I am Phil Jurus, retired Lutheran Pastor.