Parashat Nitzavim-Vayeilech: Ethical Wills

Commentary on Parashat Nitzavim-Vayeilech, Deuteronomy 29:9 - 31:30

Although we might think of the Torah as being about the past, detailing the origins of the cosmos, the planet and the Jewish people, in the double portion Nitzavim-Vayeilech the focus is firmly on the future. Knowing that he is soon to die, Moses summons the entire people, young and old, male and female, insider, outsider, low status and high, to hear his reflections, predictions and instructions for what is to come.

“I am establishing a covenant,” he tells them, “And not only with you who are standing here in person today, but also with those not here with us,” the generations as yet unborn. In urgent and poetic terms, Moses imparts his wisdom on how to live right: what to draw close and what to avoid, the latter including private temptations and subtle self-deception. He describes the consequences that will arise from errors, and the promise, material and spiritual, of devotion’s rewards.

Here Moses is modeling something we can emulate directly: creating an ethical will. Whether we have reason to believe that death is imminent, or whether we are confronting our mortality in more general terms, making a statement to the future can be profoundly helpful. An ethical will is an opportunity to articulate guiding values and to actively convey what this life has taught to those we leave behind — those we have met, and perhaps those who come after them too. In formulating an ethical will, we not only move towards conscious acceptance of our mortality, but bring into focus what our lives have been about.

Wills are commonly used for settling practical affairs, and Moses also undertakes these sorts of arrangements: He invests a successor and entrusts his teaching to the priests and the elders. But that document is not one concerned with the disposal of Moses’ private property, but rather with the maintenance of the public good.

Thus, he tells the people, look to the long range. Know that even if things go wrong, they can and should be rectified. The first ten verses of Deuteronomy 30 contain seven iterations of the word shuv, return. This word is the core of teshuvah (repentance or returning to rightness), our spiritual focus as the new year draws near. In anticipating both trial and triumph, Moses shares key emotional advice echoed as well in Psalm 27, recited daily during the season of teshuvah: chazak v’ematz, be strong and courageous. The way ahead will not be easy. We must marshal our inner resolve.

Not everyone has the chance to craft such explicit reflections. Some losses are too sudden while others are too gradual for such accounting. Some loved ones, even had they heard of ethical wills, might have balked at attempting one. But paradoxically, undertaking such a practice might also help a mourner who is struggling to reconcile with death, either by articulating an ethical will on behalf of the dead, developing one’s own, or both. Sometimes we might actually be able to recognize our beloved’s legacy more clearly than they themself could.

The truth of this evolving, iterative process of understanding is likewise recorded in Moses’ last testament. While he opens with the explicit inclusion of generations yet to come, a few verses later he remarks: “Concealed matters belong to God, but revelation is ours and our descendants’ too, an ongoing process in enacting all the words of this Teaching.” (Deuteronomy 29:28) When we leave this world we cannot know its future. We can share reflections, even offer suggestions, but their meanings are echoes that will continue to expand without us. Knowing this, what advice would you offer those who are yet to come?

This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Reading Torah Through Grief newsletter on September 8th, 2023. To sign up to receive this newsletter each week in your inbox, click here.

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