Have you written your will?

 Rabbi Philip Weintraub

Parshat Chayei Sarah

November 14, 2020

Congregation B’nai Israel 

What is our legacy?  How do we share that with the next generation?  What is our true inheritance?

For some an inheritance is physical.  It may be financial.  It may be spiritual. It may speak of the values and the lessons that we wish to share with those that follow us.

In this week’s parsha, we see the contrast between Avraham and Melech David.  Each had clear desires of what they wished to happen as they approached death, yet one had clearly put his plans in motion, while the other had not.  Regarding Avraham, we see him give gifts to his children from concubines, but make clear that Isaac receives the full inheritance.  With David, we see that in his old age his court is in open conflict and revolt, with multiple competitors to his throne.  It is not until Bathsheva reminds him of his promises that he clearly designates Solomon for the throne.

In the 21st century, it is much less common for us to leave everything to one child and ignore the others, but then we aren’t rulers of a kingdom.  In my rabbinic experience, I have seen how unclear and unstated wishes can lead to complicated family disputes.  Expressing our desires in writing, speaking with our families about vital issues can greatly smooth relationships in future generations.

Nothing I have said so far is controversial.  It is straightforward, simple, yet, too many of us have not prepared the legal, medical or spiritual paperwork to ensure the wellbeing of our families.  In not preparing, we may think we are denying the inevitability of death or avoiding looking at our mortality, yet neither reason really suffices.

I would like to encourage you to consider three matters, all of which require both conversation and written materials.

  • Spiritual preparation

  • Medical preparation

  • Legal preparation

From the spiritual perspective, we need to think about the values that drive us.  If we have businesses, how did we operate them? Why did we make those choices?  What inspired us to go into the careers we went into?  What were our family lives like?  Sharing with our loved ones a narrative of our lives, sharing stories, sharing ideas, sharing values is not just a gift for them.  It is also a gift for us.  When we examine our lives, we may be surprised at what we learn about ourselves.  This is not a single conversation or a single document, but one that adapts and changes over the course of our lives.  What mattered to us when we were 15 may be different at 35, 55, 85 or 105!  Yet when we tell our loved ones what is important to us, explain why, not just once, but over the course of lifetimes, they are far more likely to listen to our counsel!  

A generation or two ago, medical care had improved dramatically, yet there were far more fatal conditions than there seem to be today.  At the same time, our capabilities to extend life do not always improve our quality of life.  We may find ourselves attached to machines keeping our blood pumping, our lungs inflating, yet how “alive” are we actually?  Many of us might have different perspectives on how aggressively our physical health should be followed at different times in our lives.  A tragic car accident at 25 may be different than a heart attack and stroke at 110.  Both could lead to a ventilator, but may have very different outcomes on recovery.  Telling our loved ones, appointing a health care proxy that knows how our decision matrix may change based on the potential of recovery is vital.  It does no good to have a conversation with one person while appointing another as a healthcare proxy!  All involved must know our wishes--especially if they change.  There are detailed forms online that are legal in Florida with dozens of questions about circumstances.  Yes, it feels gruesome to go through them, but considering the possibilities now saves tremendous angst later.

In my rabbinic and chaplaincy experience I have seen many cases where families had angry disagreements on the wishes of someone.  Had there ever been a family conversation about what a loved one actually wanted, these hurt feelings might have been avoided. When a child or caregiver knows what their loved one wanted at the end of life, it takes away the tremendous guilt that they might feel with uncertainty.

On a legal level, I say consult your lawyer.  Make sure your wills, estates and trusts are up to date and following state law.  Make sure that the executor knows that they are the executor and has access to any and all appropriate paperwork.  If you have a safe deposit box, make sure they have a key and are listed on bank paperwork.  

In our parsha, Avraham spent significant time and resources securing a plot for his wife and for the future.  His efforts were vital AND they showed us that caring for our loved ones bodies is ALSO an important Jewish value. It is something that has been demonstrated in Israel throughout its history.  The Israeli military leaves no one behind--even after their death.  It is something that our country has also tried to emulate.

This week, across the country, synagogues are honoring their veterans.  In our community, we have individuals who have served in all branches over the years.  I am grateful to those who served in our Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, Reserves.  I don’t believe we have any Space Force veterans yet--but give us another generation and I am sure we will!  At the end of Musaf, we will honor you with a taste of your branch anthems.  

As our national anthem says:

O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave/O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave