Looking through a pile of old handwritten postcards at an estate sale recently, I began thinking about my own worldly possessions. Who will wind up with my mini-bottle collection? How much will my heirs get for my vinyl records? And might there be something more valuable than knick-knacks to leave behind?
Judaism has a tradition of the “ethical will” — not so much who gets what, but rather the passing down of emotional scruples scavenged over a lifetime. Known as “tzava’ot,” ethical wills go back thousands of years. Rabbi Asher ben Yehiel (1250–1327) left his community 131 rules for proper behavior (“Do not hold back from acquiring a trusted friend;” “Pave a path of righteousness in the middle road in eating and drinking”). Glückel of Hameln (1646–1724) embedded her memoir with advice for her 12 children (“Above all, my children, be honest in money matters, with both Jews and Gentiles, lest the name of Heaven be profaned”). Famously, Judah Ibn Tibbon (1120–1190) uses part of his ethical will to admonish his son (“And you, my son! You have disappointed my objectives and hopes”).
Elana Zaiman, a sixth-generation rabbi who lives in Seattle, has written a book on the subject. The Forever Letter is inspired by her father’s own ethical will. It cites the above examples and provides guidance for writing our own ethical wills, or “forever letters.”
According to Zaiman, forever letters can come in many forms: personal stories, expressions of gratitude, blessings and encouragement, reflections on humility and vulnerability, even petitions for forgiveness. Forever letters are written for offspring and spouses, of course, but also parents, siblings, mentors, and anyone who plays a key role in your life.
With this in mind, I undertook my own forever letter in hopes I might distribute the communiqué while I’m still alive and well. Every trip I’ve taken has opened my worldview, and so I included a section of my own travel in my letter, pleading for my circle to use my inheritance to get out of town, see the differences in other cultures, and, most importantly, see what we have in common. (I also suggest meditation; buying the car you want; and telling everyone you meet thank you, you’re welcome, and I love you, though not necessarily in that order.)
I’m lucky. My tribe is large, and I’ve devoted paragraphs to specific friends and loved ones. My stepson, Riley, has his own chapter. Full of compliments about the gentle, caring man he’s becoming, it shares my belief in him and future generations. I also wrote candidly about my divorce, and how, while painful, the effort at love and commitment had made me a better person for giving it a go. I shared how important it is to keep striving for interconnectivity, and how wonderful it is to see couples that are making unions work and the work that goes into those relationships.
The act of writing any letter — much less a forever one — in this age of tweeting and texting and selfie-taking is refreshing. While so many of us repost inspirational quotes and articles on social media from greats like the Dalai Lama, Anne Lamott, and Eckhart Whatshisname, we don’t take time to cultivate our own set of insights and vision.
Zaiman makes it clear you don’t need to be a writer to pen a forever letter, and she gently coaxes readers through the process of self-examination and discovery. She suggests sharing not just values but desires, stories, dreams from the heart, and tradition. No one likes to be lectured, especially from beyond the grave, so tone is key. Don’t play favorites, give up family secrets, or preach values you never lived. “Our goal in life is not to figure out how to be someone else but to figure out how to be ourselves,” she writes. “When we write a forever letter, we have only to be ourselves.”
Given that I’m aiming for mass appeal, I included humor, some self-penned poems, and a few photographs that defined and moved me. My thoughts also are directed to my (thankfully) still-living parents, Herb and Isabel, who have played a prominent role; while I’ve thanked them for their love and (often financial) support, my missive hammers the notion home.
The biggest benefit of putting time into a forever letter has been homing in on my own core principles and philosophy. What have I learned on the trip? What values do I wish to pass on? And, most importantly, am I living and sharing these values each step of the way?
I’m still finishing up my forever letter, and I plan on distributing it this year to friends, family, and my folks. Like a legal will, it can be revised. If I’m lucky, I’ll be working on a new draft in 30 years or so.