I Promise: An Ethical Will for My Students

Two times a week, I meet with a class of exactly ten students in a small conference room at UNC Charlotte. Those ten students are dealing with the most difficult history I teach – the history of European antisemitism.

It is challenging work because the readings assigned are among the most sophisticated I teach. It is challenging work because my students are almost always unfamiliar with this history, and it is a painful one.

It is likely that my students will be Christian. Some will be devout. These are students who usually came into my world via courses I teach on Hebrew Bible. We forge, in such courses, deep connections around biblical literature. Our learning may include rabbinic midrash as well as academic commentaries. The exposure to ways Jews have read biblical texts sometimes leads them to question what they might have believed about the Jewish relationship with bible. That can lead them to this course.

I am – and this is hardly unusual – the only Jew in the room. I know, from long experience, how much courage my students are bringing to our course of study. After we covered the way John’s Jesus vilifies Jews as children of the father of lies, as offspring of Satan (John 8:44), a student said: “I’ve read this before. Somehow, I passed over the text. It was just a story. I can’t believe I did that, now.”

Sometimes, as we gather, we trade small news. Recently, I told my students about my new glass whiteboard. It’s huge – it takes up a good part of the wall next to my desk at home. There are columns for each realm I work in – one for the course I am currently teaching for ALEPH Ordination Programs, another to cover administrative work in that realm, another for my work as the director of graduate studies for UNCC’s department of Religious Studies, one for the courses I teach for the department, another for the work I do as a spiritual leader of a small havurah, another for the little Etsy business I have making kippot and tallitot. There is a little corner for “personal.”

My students laughed and asked what was put in that corner.

“The first thing on it,” I said, “is ‘ethical will for Serafina.’”

My students know the name of my son and my daughter-in-law. So they knew who I was talking about – but not what I was talking about.

Ethical will,” one asked. “What is that?”

I explained. “You know how you have a will for your assets, and what you want done with them after you die? An ethical will is a Jewish tradition. It’s a document that might include pragmatic information, like how you want your funeral to go and that sort of thing. But the main thing is writing down what you want to leave your children in the way of wisdom or learning. It’s a way of summing up what you hope your children will take from you that is truly important or good.”

I had long since written such a text for my son, Erik, and I explained that I periodically updated it for him. But it was now over two years since he had married Serafina, and I felt it was time for me to write her one, too.

For Sera has brought a perfect completion to our little family. I can no longer imagine us without her. She and I had become friends, and as much as I was learning from her, I hoped that there would be some learning I could give back to her. When I died, I would want her to have that from me.

“Well,” one of the students said, “we would miss you, too. What about an ethical will for us?”

The other students agreed, though one was afraid that given everything else on the board, adding something might not be the best thing for me.

“I think it’s a good idea,” I said. “I like it.”

I have been teaching for almost four decades. My students have given me life and hope. They sustain me and they teach me. I rely on their generosity, their kindness, the wisdom they bring into every classroom. I do not overstate: My students also complete my life and make it perfect.

I went home late that day and after I took off my coat and put my backpack in the corner of my office, I picked up a marker and drew a line from “Ethical will for Sera” to the word “students.”

And I will write both.

This post is dedicated both to Serafina, on her birthday. If I hadn’t thought about what I want to write to her I wouldn’t have ever been asked whether I would write to my students….

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Na’aseh v’nishma: We will do and we will get it!

We have spent half the year with dysfunctional families, tyrannical rulers, great escapes, and dramatic treks through the wilderness. We have learned lessons from tales of sibling rivalry, marital relationships, and conversations with talking animals. Genesis and the first part of Exodus provide no end of learning opportunities.

This week, v’ayleh hamishpatim: These are the rules. Admittedly, some of the verses we read in Mishpatim are challenging. And yet, many resonate and inspire us, offering opportunities to expand our sense of justice and responsibility for the world we live in.

Some examples?

We are responsible. If someone owns an animal who is known to be violent, for example, and the animal kills someone, the owner must make restitution. Where I live, stories of children and adults who are mauled to death by dogs are not so rare as I would wish. Our ancient forbears knew about the problems that afflict human society – and they weren’t so very different from those that afflict us today. How do we make sure animals are protected and safe? How do we make sure humans are, too?

We are responsible. Do not carry false rumors. Our Torah not only warns us against uttering sheker, falsehoods and lies, but also lashon hara, slander. Say negative things about someone to those who have no practical reason to know of a person’s weakness, and you violate Torah. Even r’khilut, truths about a person that are not defamatory but communicated for no good reason constitute gossip. So much communication that goes wrong can go right when we are mindful, careful, open and generous. Why not try to be all those things?

We are responsible. For widows. For orphans. For the poor.  These laws remind us that justice must be meted out equally to poor and rich alike, that we are obligated to care for those in need – weren’t we once slaves in Egypt, Torah asks? “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of a stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 23: 9).

If we fear the homeless instead of housing them, if we ignore the growing disparity between poor and rich, if we ourselves never imagine what it is to lose our jobs and our sense of worth, to be desperate, to go hungry, then we can hardly understand what we need to do to build a just society. It’s not that hard to ignore real pain and feed apathy, self-indulgence, and disinterest.

When given the chance to take on the law – before they knew every last requirement, every last mitzvot, the Israelites all answered, the Torah says, with one voice: “We will do!” (Ex. 24.7).

Na’aseh v’nishma.

“We will do,” they said. “We will do and then hear, then understand.”

It is in the doing that we understand how to become the holy people God longs for. By noticing in our conversations when we can redirect complaints and concerns so that those who are hurt can benefit from an opportunity to understand – directly – when and why something has gone wrong, from making sure that all we do and all we own – from cars to dogs – are held and used responsibly, by doing the tikkun olam projects waiting for our active affirmation, by saying “we will do” each morning when we wake up and act upon our commitment each day – this is what will lead to our learning to be the kind of people that is, in fact, a holy one.

When our works exceed our wisdom, our wisdom endures.

Naaseh v’nishma.

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