My love, if I die today, I want you to know. I love you. I’ve loved my life. And I want you to love yours.
So, I offer you this ethical will. A letter from the heart. Just a few idealistic thoughts about a few precious values. A little wisdom to guide you on your way.
Written February 2007.
As I am writing this, I am 47 years old. For many years already, I’ve felt that nothing is lacking from my life. If I died today, God forbid, I would feel that I had accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish in my life. I have had an outstanding family of origin, a world-class education, a fabulous marriage, two magnificent children, and a fascinating career filled with intellectual, emotional, and spiritual growth – all in places untouched by war, famine, or extreme natural disaster. Anything else good I could imagine would just be icing on the cake.
So, from this place of good fortune, I offer these words of wisdom.
Love is the most important thing in life. It is the container of life. It is the vessel in which you can become a whole person. It’s a safety net. A way of being. And a way of making it possible for other people to be. It’s complex. No, it doesn’t have only one meaning. It has something to do with genuinely wanting other people to be happy. With finding satisfaction in helping them. Letting them be who they are, and accepting that they will become better people over time, but in their own unique way. Forgiving yourself your mistakes because you know others will forgive them too. And of course it doesn’t hurt if you also enjoy the company of some of the people you love, like I enjoy yours!
Knowledge is important, and so is creativity, but in the end, as Plato says, they are correctly understood as subsets of love. It’s no accident that my favourite book in the world is Plato’s Symposium, a wild and weird poetic-philosophical exploration of every facet of love.
Develop relationships with non-human animals. Learn to read their ways, and to communicate in their symbols. Appreciate how much they do that for you. This will help take you outside of your own head. It will broaden any habits of narrowness and chauvinism you might step into. And it will help you realize how amazingly precious everything on this planet can be. Everything is alive, buzzing with divine energy. May you never forget that, never close your eyes to it, never become too hurt to see it. (Maybe you’ll read my other favourite books, Vicki Hearne’s Adam’s Task and Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.)
Develop a unique and secret mitzvah that you do regularly, something that will brighten a life. It can be as big as one of my Dad’s: quietly working for free on law cases for poor clients. Or it can be as small as one of mine, picking up earthworms washed onto the sidewalk by the rain, in danger of drying and dying, and returning them to the dirt so they can burrow down into safety. Of course, as the Ba’al Shem Tov said, you never know which small mitzvah is really a big one. To the earthworm, finding a way home to escape death is quite important. As the Ba’al Shem Tov also said, “a worm worships God in its own way.”
Even if you become very wealthy and very cerebral, don’t abandon your connection to the hands-on work of living a human life! Build things, cook, grow food, clean toilets, wash clothes. Karl Marx said the essence of human nature is work (technically, he called it “labour”). And even if he was a little clueless about what women need, and even if his theories were misapplied in bloody revolutions, I think he was right about work. We’re ultimately all in the same social class of “human beings” and we all do at least some of the same work. Don’t ever forget my favourite verse of Torah, v’chibes begadav hacohen (Num.19:7) . Even the cohen (priest) did his own laundry! It’s a spiritual responsibility.
So my blessing to you, to all of you, but especially to you, my children, is that you continue to develop the inner resources to deal with whatever life brings your way. That through all your experiences, whether delightful or painful, you continue to grow in knowledge, compassion and love. And that, through your compassion, you share your love and knowledge with others in ways that ease their journeys.
Life can be tough enough in the best of circumstances, but right now is a precarious time for the world, and a precarious time for the Jewish people. I wish you the best of everything with all my love.
I’ll see you in your dreams, or at any other meeting place that works for you. If the meetings are troubling at first, don’t worry, we’ll work everything out over time.
Readers, please note. (1) I’ve left out my personal messages of appreciation and apology. Because those are for family only! (2) I wrote this before a decade of pain, illness, and grief. But I still agree with it all.
Learn more about writing an ethical will from Willow Eol.