This Rosh Hashannah sermon explores the history and meaning of Jewish ethical legacies and living wills. It also sets up a time set aside during Yom Kippur for congregants to consider their own ethical legacies they'd want to leave behind.
Let My Name be Remembered With Laughter: Passing on our Ethical Legacies
On a warm Friday afternoon in May of last year, Jessica and I made our way to the Brotherhood Synagogue in downtown Manhattan to commemorate the 94th yahrtzeit of Sholem Aleichem. The author of countless beloved Yiddish stories, including the familiar tales of Tevye the Dairyman, Sholem Aleichem had specified in his will what was to take place after his death:
Wherever I die, let me be buried not among the rich and famous, but among plain Jewish people, the workers, the common folk, so that my tombstone may honor the simple graves around me, and the simple graves honor mine, even as the plain people honored their folk writer in his lifetime. …
At my grave, and throughout the whole year, and then every year on the anniversary of my death, my remaining son and my sons-in-law, if they are so inclined, should say kaddish for me. And if they do not wish to do this, or if it is against their religious convictions, they may fulfill their obligation to me by assembling together with my daughters and grandchildren and good friends to read this testament, and also to select one of my stories, one of the really merry ones, and read it aloud in whatever language they understand best, and let my name rather be remembered by them with laughter than not at all.
When Jessica and I arrived at the Brotherhood Synagogue, we were delighted and surprised to see the entire sanctuary full of people. As we took our seats in the upper level, we learned from Sholem Aleichem’s great-grandson that the author’s family continues the tradition of gathering every year with good friends to read from his will and a selection of his stories. Prominent Yiddish actors and acclaimed storytellers regaled us for hours with Yiddish and English renditions of some of his funniest works. The highlight of the evening occurred when Bel Kaufman, Sholem Aleichem’s 99-year-old granddaughter and the last person alive who remembers conversing with this folk hero, took the stage to share some of her fond memories of her grandfather. The sanctuary filled with laughter and tears as each person was able to see through Bel’s eyes and hear through her ears the man who had delighted them with stories since their childhood. Jessica and I left enriched, marveling at the love and good humor shared at the synagogue that evening.
Perhaps the most extraordinary part of our experience was recognizing that the tradition has continued strong for almost one hundred years. By availing himself of the ancient Jewish tradition of writing an ethical legacy, or tzava’ah, Sholem Aleichem secured a steady place in the hearts of generations of family and friends.
From the biblical era and through every chapter of Jewish history, individuals like Sholem Aleichem have recorded their thoughts and experiences as guideposts to moral living. These ethical legacies bear witness to the deepest desires of their authors, illuminating their lives in the glow of their realized and unfulfilled hopes. Tzava’ot often take the form of a letter addressed to one’s children, reflecting the verse from the book of Proverbs (1:8), “My son, heed the discipline of your father, / And do not forsake the instruction of your mother.” This rich and diverse body of Jewish literature opens a window to the lives and aspirations of Jews throughout the centuries.
Take, for example, the ideals of Eleazar of Mayence, who died on Rosh Hashannah morning in 1357. Six hundred fifty years ago, he wrote:
These are the things which my sons and daughters shall do at my request. They shall go to the house of prayer morning and evening, and shall pay special regard to the T’filah and Shema. So soon as the service is over, they shall occupy themselves a little with the Torah, the Psalms, or with works of charity. Their business must be conducted honestly, in their dealings both with Jew and Gentile. They must be gentle in their manners, and prompt to accede to every honorable request. They must not talk more than is necessary, by this will they be saved from slander, falsehood, and frivolity. They shall give an exact tithe of all their possessions; they shall never turn away a poor man empty-handed, but must give him what they can, be it much or little. If he beg a lodging over night, and they know him not, let them provide him with the wherewithal to pay an inn-keeper. Thus shall they satisfy the needs of the poor in every possible way.
Eleazar continues with injunctions to his children to contribute to the Jewish community, to be modest in food and dress, to be careful with speech, and to give constant thanks to God for the world’s numberless blessings. Eleazar, like countless other authors of tzava’ot, outlines his deepest values and imparts them to his children.
On Rosh Hashannah, we are called to make a cheshbon nefesh, an “accounting of the soul.” We review our deeds of the past year, compare them with the values of our tradition, and make any necessary course corrections as a result of what we find. In many ways, this process parallels the writing of an ethical legacy. In both exercises, we examine our deepest convictions and make plans for the continuation of those values in the future. On Rosh Hashanah, we are most open to the part of ourselves that gives voice to the inner dreams we hope to pass on.
Rosie Rosenzweig reaffirms the importance of the High Holidays in the ethical legacy she wrote for her children in 1979:
I wish for you the joys of understanding the knowledge of our tradition to its deepest soul. I guarantee it will resonate in your heart at times of deepest trouble and soundest joy. There is a mellowness I would wish for you in your later years that I now am just beginning to perceive.
For instance, take the commandment “Thou shalt have no other Gods before you.” If the name of God, “Yehovah,” means the future tense of “to be,” then you as [God’s] reflection should also always be becoming … working for a future image of yourself, a better self of more enduring character. You take teshuvah [repentance] seriously, you change, you redeem your life, you take Yom Kippur seriously … and when you do this which is your tradition and your best selves, I live for you, my living heritage, my ever-bearing fruits.
Rosie teaches us that our lives should be an embodiment of teshuvah, of change. Each of us is created in the image of God, and God’s four letter name, Yod-Hey-Vav-Hey, resembles the future tense of the Hebrew word “to be.” Thus, each of us should be a reflection of becoming; each of us should embody in our present lives the ongoing creativity and development of the Eternal. For Rosie, being good isn’t good enough – we must always be on the path of improvement, always striving for our highest ideals and leaving behind harmful and distracting behaviors.
Rosie’s words captivate me. I admire her for being able to put to paper the beliefs that she holds dearest, and I can only trust that she herself grew from her experience of writing an ethical legacy. I am in awe of Sholem Aleichem’s ethical legacy, which draws hundreds of people to a relatively small synagogue every year. These tzava’ot are true treasures, admitting us into the private recesses of beautiful Jewish souls. They bind us to their authors, who are in turn bound to one another as participants in an ancient tradition that reaches back to the earliest stories of the book of Genesis.
But there is one Jew whose ethical legacy I wish I could read more than any other’s. The bible shares the final testaments of King David to his son Solomon, of Moses to the people of Israel, and of Jacob to his twelve sons. Isaac offers his blessing first to Jacob and then to his brother, Esau, as Isaac lies on what he believes is his deathbed. But Abraham, the hero of the Torah portion we read this morning, leaves nothing behind. I am often struck by the substantial silence that accompanies Abraham’s end, and I consider it to be perhaps the greatest tragedy of the book of Genesis.
For unlike his son and grandson, Abraham does not have the chance to address his children before he dies. In fact, after today’s Torah reading, Abraham will never again speak to his wife, Sarah, or his sons, Isaac and Ishmael. When Abraham comes down the mountain after the akeidah, he comes down alone, and the rabbis wonder where Isaac has gone. They speculate that perhaps he has gone to an academy to study the word of God or to the Garden of Eden to heal from his trauma – either way, Isaac is not ready to deal with the pain of his near sacrifice at the hands of his father. Likewise, the next words in the Torah that we read after the Binding of Isaac are of Sarah’s death. This leads the rabbis to conclude that Sarah, having heard of Abraham’s attempted killing of her son, died of shock before Abraham was able to return home. Abraham’s last deeds are burying Sarah, securing a long-distance betrothal for Isaac, and fathering children with another wife. He leaves no final words, no blessing for his children, no record of his hopes or his doubts. This man—uprooted from his homeland, forced to divide his household not once but twice, tested by God and passing only after giving up everything dear to him—what secrets did he harbor in his heart?
Abraham’s silence in the Torah calls out to us. It begs us to answer these questions for ourselves. What would we do in Abraham’s place? What parts of our lives would we focus on? What regrets would we have? This Torah portion challenges us to face our own lives and to make an accounting, to compile a cheshbon nefesh that can serve as an ethical guidepost to those who will come after us.
Rabbi Jack Riemer, author of Ethical Wills: A Modern Jewish Treasury, writes in his preface about modern tzava’ot, and he could easily be writing about the cheshbon nefesh of Rosh Hashannah:
An ethical will is not an easy thing to write. In doing so, one confronts oneself. One must look inward to see what are the essential truths one has learned in a lifetime, face up to one’s failures, and consider what are the things that really count. Thus an individual learns a great deal about himself or herself when writing an ethical will. If you had time to write just one letter, to whom would it be addressed? What would it say? What would you leave out? Would you chastise and rebuke? Would you thank, forgive, or seek to instruct?
These ten Days of Awe are the perfect time to ask ourselves these questions. One does not need to be contemplating the end of life to write an ethical legacy: Many authors write their tzava’ot decades before their death, often revising them several years later. One does not need children to pass an inheritance to or any great schooling in Jewish values and philosophy. Rather, each person is uniquely equipped to speak for herself, to account for the things most important in her life, and to write those items down for personal reflection or to share with family. Rabbi Riemer is right: This isn’t an easy process. But committing ourselves to teshuvah, to the life of self-improvement that Rosie Rosenzweig writes about, is the honor and responsibility that we accept when we take the High Holy Days seriously.
So, I invite you to reflect on the questions that Rabbi Riemer raises. To whom would you address your ethical legacy? What are your most cherished values, and how have you lived them in years gone by? Where have you fallen short? What do you hope to pass on to future generations? And how do you plan to live your life in 5771?
During these Days of Awe, we will reflect on these questions. On Yom Kippur, we will craft our responses. Our afternoon study session on Yom Kippur will be dedicated to a deeper examination of ethical legacies, and we will each have a chance to write our own. Each of us has the ability to write an ethical legacy, and we will follow the model laid out by Rabbi Riemer in his book to guide us through this process. We will ask ourselves questions that may unlock the wisdom we have to share: What were some of the formative events in my life? Who are the people who influenced me most? What are some Scriptural passages that I find meaningful? Some may choose to share their legacies while others will prefer to keep them private. We will come together as a community to consider our deepest values, and in this way, we may provide a response to the loud silence that Abraham leaves us with at the end of this morning’s Torah reading.
As Jews, we look inward and speak out. We cherish our values, we strive to embody those values, and we try to bring those values to life in others. During these Days of Awe, we take time to recommit ourselves to the lives we want to lead, re-examining our ideals and imagining how we can continue to grow through them. May our teshuvah this year be genuine, and may we take pride in the legacy that each of us shares with the rest of the world.
לְשָׁנָה טוֹבָה תּׅכָּתֵבוּ וְתֵחָתֵמוּ – May you be written and sealed for a good year.
 Abrahams, Israel. Hebrew Ethical Wills. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1976. p. 208-209.
 Riemer, Jack and Nathaniel Stampfer. Ethical Wills: A Modern Jewish Treasury. New York: Schocken, 1983. 179.
 Ibid. xix.
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”