‘Tis the season for family gatherings. Two weeks ago, Jews gathered around the lights of the menorah, and this week Christians gather around trees illuminated with light. Many families come together in celebration, enjoying traditional holiday foods and beverages, whether latkes and slivovitz or ham and eggnog. Joyful conversations abound, as do games and songs.
But too rarely do we appreciate these cheery winter holidays as an opportunity for spiritual engagement, life review, or reflection. Even more rarely do we pause to realize that the family and friends with whom we spend these celebrations are more than fellow partygoers, but potential sources of inspiration for our lives. Most rarely do we give the eldest among us the chance to share from their wealth of life’s experience -- and instead rush to share of our own exciting moments. (I use “our own,” as I too often succumb to this tendency, as well.)
Yet even when excitement abounds during our holidays, it can be of profound meaning to seek out beloved family and friends and ask questions of greater depth. Perhaps it is a grandparent or great-grandparent to whom we most connect; maybe it is a parent, aunt or uncle; it may well be a sibling, cousin, or child.
What are we to ask? How do we cut through platitudes, joyous though they may be? What do we do with kernels of wisdom that our relatives may share with us?
A growing field of programming and research suggests that ethical wills may well provide a structure and framework for this inter-familial (and often intergenerational) sharing. I have had the great joy of recording the ethical wills of a number of seniors at the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington through a project called “Lessons of a Lifetime.”
Unlike legal wills, ethical wills do not have relevance in a court of law, but rather are a legacy of values that can be passed between individuals who care about each other. They engage with questions of ultimate meaning and seek out answers that we seldom have the opportunity to express in other contexts:
“What are your spiritual beliefs?”
“What advice would you offer other people about living their lives?”
“Have you ever had a life-altering experience or was there an event that changed your life…? How did this event affect you?”
While ethical wills may bring anew the idea of seeking wisdom from our family members, the concept of recording the wisdom of one generation to pass onto another is hardly new. Lessons of a Lifetime, the program in which I participated and help lead, itself used for inspiration what may be seen as the earliest recorded version of an ethical will: Jacob’s blessing to his children.
Fittingly, it corresponds to this week’s Torah portion (Parshat Va-y’chi, Genesis 47:28-50:26. In it, we read of Jacob’s reflections about what may befall each of his sons. Though some of the verses are more readily understood than others, and some wax poetic while other express deep-seated concern in problematic ways, they share Jacob’s innermost feelings and reflections to his family. Lying on his deathbed, Jacob, by this time also known as Israel, says to his children (TWC translation, beginning with Genesis 49:1):
Gather ‘round that I may tell you what shall befall to you in days to come: Assemble and hearken, O sons of Jacob; hearken to Israel your father. Reuben, my first-born, you are my strength and first fruit of my vigor, excessive in exalting [yourself], excessive in strength…. Simeon and Levi are partners; instruments of violence are their plan. Let me not enter their council, nor let my being join their assembly; for they killed a man in their wrath, and in their whim hamstrung an ox…. You, Judah: your brothers shall heap praise on you -- your hand on the neck of your foes, your father’s sons shall bow down to you. Judah is a lion’s cub: flourish, my son, from the prey….
Jacob continues on extensively, sharing his vision of the future for each of his sons and reflecting on elements that he sees in their characters, painful and profound alike (Genesis 49:1-27). The narrative of his deathbed reflection then concludes:
All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and thus did their father speak to them as he blessed them, blessing each one with a blessing that befit him. And he gave them a charge, saying, ‘When I am gathered to my people, bury me with my ancestors…. The field that Abraham bought from Ephron the Hittite as an inalienable gravesite’ (Genesis 49: 28-30).
Jacob’s blessing is often referenced. However, it is only sometimes seen as an early example of how we ourselves might preserve and convey the wisdom of our family members. What if Joseph or one of Jacob’s other sons had sought out Jacob’s wisdom earlier on in his life? What if Jacob had provided more reflections on his own life, rather than focusing so many of his words on others? Who else in Jacob’s family might similarly have had wisdom to share?
Jacob’s blessing suggests a fundamental human need to share our hopes and visions of the future with our loved ones. Jacob’s words, even the challenging and problematic ones, are a gift to his children. So too are the words that we may seek out from family and friends.
Let us not overlook the potential to do so during these winter months, when families draw near in celebration. Special occasions hold the potential for the sacred transmission of wisdom between relatives and friends. Ultimately, this wisdom can enable us all to lead lives of greater meaning. Ethical wills are an enduring gift to those we most love.