With an open mind

Sermons, essays, articles, arguments and thought pieces from a Liberal Jewish perspective.


Sermons and Thoughts

What legacy will we leave?

04 October 2022
Rabbi Lea Mühlstein
Sermon Kol Nidrei

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat tells a story about Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, one of the founders of the Jewish Renewal Movement:[i] when he realised he was nearing death, he made an unusual request. He knew that once he died, the chevra kadisha would perform the rituals of taharah: they would wash his body, and bless his body, and dress his body in white linen shrouds in preparation for burial. He wanted to experience that while he was alive, so that his neshamah, his soul, would be prepared for what was coming. So, he asked them to perform the rituals as though he were dead, and he closed his eyes and let himself be tended-to and prayed-over and cared-for in that unique way.

Can you imagine what that would be like? To lie still, as though your soul had already departed your body, and submit without flinching and without fear to your community’s tender care? Can you imagine wanting that kind of “dress rehearsal” for your own death?

Well, as Rabbi Rachel Barenblat highlights – today is that dress rehearsal.

It may sound strange, but this is one of the traditional ways of thinking about Yom Kippur. There are several practices that we take on, to varying degrees and in different ways, to make today a rehearsal for death.

For one, there is the abstention from food. We dress our scrolls and ourselves in white – the Jewish colour for mourning. Many avoid wearing leather because we don’t want to profit from the death of any living being on this day when we open ourselves to God’s judgment. We recite the vidui – the confessional prayer that Jews traditionally also recite on their deathbed. And unusually for an evening service, it is customary to wear a tallit for Kol Nidrei – the garment that one day shall accompany us to our final resting place.

All of these customs guide our annual rehearsal of death – a rehearsal for feeling, with your whole heart, what it is like to know that you are dying. Because of course, we are all dying.

So today is a day to prepare our soul for what will ultimately be coming. But maybe even more importantly it is a day to reflect on the legacy that we will leave behind.

In our current culture, thinking about legacies tends to be connected to reflecting on one’s personal wealth – the material things that we might leave to the next generation, to our children and grandchildren, the causes we care about, even the synagogue. Well, considering the current economic turmoil it’s probably better not to think too much about our material legacies.

And, luckily for us, this is not the kind of legacy that we should be thinking about on Yom Kippur. In fact, Yom Kippur is a day to acknowledge and then set aside our very real fears about our economic future. Instead, the holiness of the day and our liturgy asks us to reflect on how we want to be remembered.

What are the stories that tell more about who we are then bullet points on a CV specifying our education or profession? What wisdom have we acquired about what really matters?

There is a lovely Jewish custom, one that is unfortunately not sufficiently known in our time, of writing what is called an ethical will. Parents would write a letter to their children, teachers to their students, in which they would try to sum up all that they had learned in life, and in which they would try to express what they wanted most for and from the next generation.

The idea of an ethical will dates back all the way to the Bible – Jacob gathering his children at his deathbed, Moses farewell address which we will read this Shabbat in Parashat Ha’azinu, Kind David preparing Solomon. We find examples in the Apocrypha, the Talmud, medieval and modern Hebrew literature, and it is a genre that is alive until today.

One of the best-known ethical wills was written by Judah ibn Tibbon to his son, Samuel, sometime in the twelfth century. He writes: “Let books be your companions; let bookcases and shelves be your pleasure grounds and gardens. Bask in their paradise, gather their fruit, pluck their roses, enjoy their spices and their myrrh. If your soul be sated and weary, change from garden to garden, from furrow to furrow, from prospect to prospect.”[ii]

Dating from about the same time, there is also the ethical will of Wuhshah, a single mother who was a banker and broker. According to documents found in the Cairo Genizah, her net wealth was the equivalent of almost £2.5 million in today’s money. While most scholarly attention has been paid to her will distributing her great wealth, one of the most touching documents found in the collection is the letter to her son, in which she spells out her ethical will, encouraging him to continue his religious learning, and asking him to lead a Jewish life.[iii]

Rabbi Jack Riemer, who published a beautiful collection of ethical wills and a guide on how to prepare them, highlights for us that neither writing nor receiving an ethical will is an easy thing. As he puts it:

There is the temptation, an almost irresistible one, for parents to try to persuade after death what they were unable to persuade during life. There is the temptation to repeat once more, to plead once more, and to impose a burden of guilt from the grave.

In fact, the famous passage from ibn Tibbon’s will that I just quoted gives a rather incorrect impression of the complete will, which runs to over 50 pages. With the exception of this passage, most of it is full of rebukes and chastisements and laments and self-pity.

On Yom Kippur in particular, we are called-on to do better as we reflect on what we might wish to write in our ethical wills. To do so, we must confront ourselves? We must look inward to see what are the essential truths we have learned in a lifetime, facing up to our own failures, and consider what are the things that really count. That’s exactly what Yom Kippur is all about – it’s what the rabbis called Cheshbon Hanefesh, an accounting of the soul.

I personally love the idea of thinking about Yom Kippur as a day to draft and re-draft my ethical will. If I could write just one letter, to whom would it be addressed? What would I say? What would I leave out? Which anecdotes would I include and what would I prefer to be forgotten? Would I chastise and rebuke? Would I thank, forgive, or seek to instruct? Would I share my fears and my hopes? What experiences from the past year would make me want to redraft last year’s letter, change its recipients?

On Erev Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Aaron reflected on the challenge of finding God, and with the help of the wonderful thinking of our colleague Rabbi Judith Rosen-Berry attempted to answer what we believe [in] in Liberal Judaism?

Tonight, I want to suggest that the answer to the question what we believe [in] in Liberal Judaism isn’t just about theology – though searching for God is most certainly an important and most appropriate past-time at this most sacred season. My guess is that while God would certainly feature at least implicitly if not explicitly in our draft ethical wills, for most Liberal Jews what will lie at the heart of our letters is the relationships that we maintained or failed to maintain with those who share our life’s journey. Rather than simply looking to God, we look at each other, waiting for the other to hold up a mirror so that we may truly see who we are. This might sound somewhat radical and progressive but it actually has been an age-old Jewish answer.

The great Talmudic sage Hillel is said to have been approached by a gentile wishing to convert demanding that he be taught the entire Torah stood on one foot.[iv] Hillel accepted the challenge saying:

“What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this—go and study it!”

Modern Jewish philosophers found their own ways to express this – Martin Buber called it the I and Thou, Emmanuel Levinas spoke of the human face, which “orders and ordains” calling us into “giving and serving” the Other, Judith N Shklar stressed the need for us to fear cruelty so that we may act to prevent injustice.

Hillel, Buber, Levinas and Shklar all begin their search for what we believe in by looking at their fellow human beings and how we ought to treat them. That is the Jewish path to finding God. There are no short cuts…

And so, when, as I hope I might have inspired you to do this evening, you think this Yom Kippur about your own ethical will, I hope that you will follow along that Jewish path of seeing your life intertwined with the life of those around you and those who will follow you. For who knows, as you reflect on what you want to be remembered, what forgotten, your successes and failures, the calls to action that you heeded and the ones that you want future generations to heed, your hopes and fears, you might just discover God accompanying you along the way.


[ii] J. Riemer, N. Stampfer, Ethical Wills & How to Prepare Them (2nd Edition), Turner Publishing Company 2015.

[iii] Thanks to Amy Perlin for bringing my attention to Wuhshah.

[iv] bShabbat 31a