Next week, Danny will be graduating from high school. As I contemplate sending him off to the wilds of Boston—actually, Boston is only wild when it comes to driving; nowhere else in the country do drivers entering the rotary think they have right of way over those drivers already in it—I‘ve been considering what advice I might give him. I’m not talking about warnings such as “You can’t wear shorts in Massachusetts in the winter unless you want to get frostbite” or “I’m pretty sure if you go sailing on the Charles River and fall in, you don’t have to get a tetanus shot anymore.” Rather, I’m thinking about what advice for good living I might offer.
Judaism has a solution for this, known as an ethical will, or zeva’ot in Hebrew. The idea of instructing one’s descendants or followers dates back to the Book of Genesis, chapter 49, when a dying Jacob blesses his children and then instructs them on where to bury him. Moses, in chapter 32 of Deuteronomy, instructs the Israelites to be a holy people and teach their children to observe the law. The Talmudic rabbis often transmitted their instructions orally to their sons or disciples.
The oldest existing ethical will as we know it dates back to the eleventh century. “Think not of evil, for evil thinking leads to evil doing,” instructs Eleazar ben Isaac of Worms. A century later, Judah ben ibn Tibbon wrote, “Avoid bad company; make your books your companions.” The late-fourteenth-century ethical will of Solomon Alami reflects the persecutions faced at the time by Jewish in Spain: “Don’t hesitate to flee when exile is the only way to religious freedom; don’t worry about your worldly career or your property, but go at once.”
Today, ethical wills are written by men and women both, Jew and non-Jew alike, to their sons and daughters. There are even books on how to write them; two that come to mind are Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper by Barry Baines and So Grows the Tree: Creating an Ethical Will by Jo Kline Cebuhar. I still don’t know what I want to say to Danny, beyond “Don’t drink or do drugs, be honest, and treat your date the way you would want your sister to be treated.” But I do know that if he asks if he can take his car to Boston, the answer is no.