Having just lost my mother less than two weeks ago, I have been pondering, among the flood of memories that have swept over me, how very short is a human life, even one like hers who lived for 98+ years.
When we are young we assume that we will live indefinitely. We don’t think about the end of life. But when we lose the people we love we realize, as if for the first time that a life, however long, is in truth very brief.
Writing a eulogy for my mother was not easy for me. I have officiated at close to 500 funerals over the past 40 years. I have written eulogies for more than 35 members of my family and my wife’s family. I know what is required in writing such an address – to evoke the essence of a person and reflect on those enduring qualities that left an impression on others. It is always difficult to do this. Nothing, however, came even close to the challenge I felt in writing my own mother’s eulogy.
I avoided sitting down to write. I waited and waited and waited some more until I could wait no longer. Then I struggled to find exactly the right words to express who my mother was, what was in her heart, what animated her spirit and personality, how she developed her core values, who she loved, and what was most important to her.
I thought I would be prepared for her death. After all, these last years were not easy for her as her sight, hearing and mental acuity were seriously compromised. As it turned out, I was not prepared. After she died when I realized that I would never see her again, never see the smile on her face when I came to visit, never again hear her voice, nor feel the warmth of her skin against my lips as I kissed her goodbye and said “Mom, I love you and I’ll see you next time,” and hear her say back to me “I love you too,” I found no words for a eulogy as I contemplated the fact that she was now gone forever.
As we lowered her casket into the double grave with my father who we buried 56 years ago, and covered her with soil, I was struck in a completely new way by the permanence of her death, and I felt what I felt when my father died so long ago – empty, alone and deeply sad.
Now both my parents are gone, and I wish that I had something written from each of them telling me what they loved most, valued and wanted for my brother, me, our wives, and the next generation in our family.
Sharing this with you is by way of an introduction to an invitation I offer those who live in Los Angeles. This coming Tuesday evening, January 5th, at 7 PM at Temple Israel of Hollywood, I will lead a discussion about why I believe it is so important that each one of us, regardless of our age, whether we be old or young, write our “Ethical Will.”
Ethical Wills are documents that Jews have written over many centuries that express a person’s core beliefs, values, desires, and hopes for their children, grandchildren and heirs. Ethical Wills constitute a genre of Jewish literature begun when Jews suffered impoverishment and had little material possessions to leave behind. They contain no lists of assets and property, but they reveal the inner life, heart, mind, and soul of individual Jews who describe with simple eloquence their ultimate values, what they cherish and feel about their families, what lessons they learned distilled over a life time, and the acquired wisdom and truths they want to impart.
In American culture we leave trusts and wills to allocate our worldly possessions. However, is material wealth what is really most valuable in our lives to leave to others?
On one occasion only years ago I read a woman’s Ethical Will at her funeral. It was a powerful experience for all because it was as if she was speaking to us from the other side about what was most important to her and what she wished for her family and dear ones. Ever since I have encouraged people to write these themselves.
I wish I had had such a document from my own mother to have read last week at her grave as we bid her farewell.
I welcome you to join us on Tuesday evening. I will distribute examples of Ethical Wills written over the centuries and ask participants to consider writing their own.
If you wish to join us, please email our worship coordinator, Rachel Lurie, by Monday, January 4 at Temple Israel so we can know who you are and so we can appropriately plan – RA@TIOH.org.
L’shanah chilonit tovah u-briyah. A good and healthy New Year to you all.