The one sure way to achieve immortality

By Julia Neuberger, May 12, 2011

Some years ago, a friend was havinga particularly rough time. He experienced bereavement, marriage breakdown, work problems, and a general feeling of pointlessness - more common than you might think. He asked me, in somewhat plaintive tones, whether what he had in life was really all that there was to it.

From that, directly and indirectly, comes the question asked by so many people, Jew and non-Jew alike, religious and non-religious (it's just that religious people think that they ought to know the answer!). "Is that all there is?"

And so, somewhat nervously, I started trying to write what matters to most of us. What has emerged is not a religious book, and it is certainly not just for Jews. On most subjects I found material, stories and insights from all faiths and none. But there was one area where we Jews have something very special, which I believe we should reinvent for ourselves and for everyone else. And that is leaving an ethical will before we die.

It's not just a list of where we want money or favourite possessions to go. Anyone can do that. It's a letter that lists our most precious insights, what we have learned, what we want for our children, what wisdom we may be able to pass on.

For the large numbers who have great doubt about any kind of afterlife, leaving an ethical will so carefully crafted, so beautifully put together, that it becomes a treasured possession for our descendants, creates a different kind of immortality, a way of being remembered long after we are gone.

It's a letter which lists our most precious insights"

There are many examples in our literature, some to make us laugh as well as cry. Nathanial Trabotti, an Italian rabbi who died in 1658, gathered the leaders of his community around his deathbed to convey his will. He used the occasion to have a go at his community about gossip, gambling, dice and cards.

Meanwhile, Judah Ibn Tibbon (1120­-c1190) wrote to his son Samuel, reminding him how much he had done for him, and ending with the instruction that his child should read the will regularly, as if it would make welcome bedtime reading. He then instructed him on which books to read, how to keep track of his library, how to care for the sick and how to make full use of his talents.

In modern times such wills have become increasingly common. My friend Willie Kessler gave me a facsimile of the book his grandfather, Bernhard Kessler, who got out of Vienna just in time to escape the Nazi occupation, gave him on his barmitzvah in 1940: "If ever anyone does you an injustice, do not practice revenge. Show your mettle, however heavy your heart. For only love, truth and justice will prevail. Do not, therefore complain and do not sin… Everything in life comes at the right time… I often feel my heart will break. But I wait patiently for God's judgment…"

He ended: "I wrote this booklet on the typewriter which your dear father gave me for my 69th birthday on August 1, 1939. I did not, however, write it in great happiness, but rather in anguish and heartache, in fear and agony of mind. For to me the present family circumstances of my beloved children are intolerable."

Yet he had already told Willie to make no enemies, and to visit his grandmother's grave in Vienna, despite the circumstances surrounding both Bernhard's refugee life and his family's uncertain future.

There is a sort of modern parallel in the letters of Ruth Picardie wrote to her children. She died of breast cancer at the age of 33 leaving two-year old twins. She made the point forcefully about the value of leaving some kind of ethical will for her children to enjoy. In emails to her friends, she recorded how weepy she felt buying the boxes to fill with memories for her children, but the two letters she left them are published in her book, Before I Say Goodbye, including, to her son Joe. "You are as musical as an angel", and "Always enjoy your music - I played piano (grade seven failed) and cello- string quartet and orchestras."

And she said to both of them: "You were the best thing that ever happened to me and Daddy and the hardest thing to let go."

An ethical will may not be easy to read. As the recipient, it can be unbearably painful, or equally extremely comforting. As a bystander, interested in the genre and thinking about reinventing it, I feel like a bit of an eavesdropper, as if I am reading extraordinarily intimate letters from beyond the grave.

But whatever emotion they evoke, it is clear they have an impact, and it must be right for us, somehow, to reinvent the tradition, not just for Jews but for everyone: a time to reflect before one's death and give the fruit of that reflection in a letter to one's nearest and dearest.

"Is that all there is: reflections on the meaning of life and leaving a legacy," is published Rider Books on June 2 at £12.99

Last updated: 11:30am, May 12 2011