I finally began writing my ethical will last week.
Oof. This is hard for so many reasons, the first of which is that I have hardly lived up to my personal ideals by any stretch of the imagination. Secondly, most people who seriously engage in writing ethical wills for their descendants have children with children of their own, whereas I am only a father with one young child – clearly, no sagacious elder. In addition to flipping my humility switch, this endeavor leaves something of a morbid taste in my mouth. I’m not expecting to die any time soon, but life has schooled me: you never know.
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During my year of reciting kaddish for Papa, I was introduced to the concept of an ethical will, and it spoke to me because much of what I continue to recall and appreciate about Papa was his character.
[Papa] was among the most decent, most kindhearted, and most modest human beings that I ever met.– Me, ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ #45, May 30, 2019
He was brilliant, of course, and I remember that too, but I cannot capture his genius, nor convey it to those who never knew him. His website, I suppose, is the best remaining evidence of his mind, and his book of probability riddles will be coming out in the not too distant future – with a foreword written by his friend Nassim Nicholas Taleb, of Black Swan fame.
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Before I launched this website, I had been in the process of thinking through the idea of writing of a ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ book, and my vision for such included an ethical will, which would be informed by my memories of Papa.
More than that, I was hoping to derive my list of ‘ethics’ from the ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ itself. In other words, I wanted my ethical will to parallel my year-long kaddish journey, thereby rendering the two a single, seamless product. Every post of my original ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ included some recollections of Papa, as well as my personal reflections upon tradition, theology, family, parenting, childhood, or memorialization, etc.
However, I hit two primary stumbling blocks. First, while every blog post did contain ethical content, there was a great deal of thematic overlap between my posts. Secondly, my process of writing the ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ on a near-weekly basis had been organic in that I had blogged all year about whatever I was experiencing, thinking, reading, and remembering. However, forcing those existing blog posts in their chronological order upon my list of personal ethics left me very little room for creativity or spontaneity. In attempting to write my ethical will that way, I couldn’t find my voice.
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Last year, I was taking a Talmud class, which focused upon the religious laws governing the Jewish Sabbath. In the tractate on Shabbat, the rabbis of the Talmud struggled to come up with a comprehensive list of 39 categories of work that are prohibited on the Sabbath.
Why 39, you ask?
Because that’s the number of categorical Sabbath prohibitions listed in the Mishnah, which is the first major written collection of the Jewish oral traditions known as the Oral Torah. It was redacted at the beginning of the 3rd century CE in Israel, whereas the Babylonian Talmud was completed later, by the end of the 5th century CE in exile.
The rabbis of the Mishnah lived earlier than the rabbis of the Talmud, thus being in closer proximity to the Divine revelation at Mount Sinai, so their teachings were held as authoritative by the rabbis of the Talmud. Hence, if the Mishnah asserted that there were exactly ‘forty minus one’ categories of work prohibited on the Sabbath, the Talmud could do nothing but accept that count.
Suffice it to say that the rabbis of the Talmud performed all sorts of mental gymnastics to apply the Mishnah’s list of 39 prohibitions to the realities of their own times, hundreds of years later and no longer residing in the Land of Israel. In fact, while the Talmud ultimately managed to hew to the all-important ‘forty minus one’, their final list was slightly different than the Mishnah’s had been.
If the rabbis of the Talmud hadn’t been fettered to the Mishnah’s ’39’, who knows what their final list of categories would have looked like?
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I gave up on my concept. Perhaps a more talented or cleverer writer could extrapolate and articulate a list of values from my series of 51 kaddish blog posts, but I am not that person.
After writing several months’ worth of reflections in my blog and returning to poetry after a decades-long hiatus, I finally wrote a first entry in my ethical will. It wasn’t at all easy for me to do, but it feels very important…
We’ll have to see where it goes.