An Ethical Will (Rabbi Perlin’s last Friday night sermon on June 15, 2018 as Senior Rabbi of TBS)
While cooking this week, I watched an episode of the TV show Supergirl. In it, a Martian father with advancing Alzheimer’s passes on all of his memories and the memories of his people’s origin and history to his adult son in a ceremony before he is about to die. The son will inherit his father’s cumulative wisdom, lessons learned after living a long life of successes and making mistakes, and his desire to honor those who came before him before he takes his leave.
I am as surprised as you are that Supergirl would end up in the opening to my last Friday night sermon as your senior rabbi this Shabbat. I was moved by the ceremony and the love that was shared in this “l’dor vador” Martian moment on Earth. It was yet another reminder that we have a need to pass on what we know, so that our life’s lessons are not in vain.
In college, long before I had children, I remember reading a Cairo Geniza text about a Jewish, single mother from the 11-12th century who was a banker and broker. I fell in love with her over the centuries for her spunk and courageous feminism. But, what was most touching was the letter she left her son, as a Jewish ethical will, encouraging him to continue his religious learning, and asking him to lead a Jewish and moral life.
According to one of the leading experts on Jewish ethical wills, Dr. Nathaniel Stampfer z”l (of blessed memory):
“The tradition of bequeathing a spiritual legacy either in the form of a codicil to a conventional will or as a separate document has its roots in the Bible and Talmud.” [p. xiii, Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them, ed J. Riemer and N. Stampfer, Jewish Lights, 2015 (1991)]
These ethical wills were sometimes shared in life, and other times shared after someone died. There is also a history of rabbinical ethical wills, which were not for families alone, but also for congregations, other rabbis and students of Torah, scholars and all Jews. Some of those got very long. Stampfer cites as an example Reb Shmuel Tefilinsky’s ethical will, which was 45 pages long! Others have been brief but memorable and quotable: In the Talmud, Berachot 28b, Rabbi Eleazer ben Hyrkanos said to his disciples: “Pay attention to the honor of your colleagues; don’t allow your children to merely learn by memorizing; let them sit at the knees of wise scholars; and when you pray, know before whom you stand.”
As Rabbi Harold Kushner is quoted as saying, the Jewish ethical will is “bequeathing our wisdom to our descendants even as we bequeath to them our hard-earned material assets.”
In recent decades, there have been many “how to” efforts to enable Jews to write their own ethical wills, and outlines presented for what one might include:
Formative events in one’s life
Important lessons one has learned
People who have been a positive influence
Favorite stories and memories
Favorite causes and concerns
Scriptural passages important to the person who is writing
Religious instructions and accounts of faith
Summing up of one’s life and legacy
Sharing of love and affection while there is still time
And Jewish values to live by.
So, tonight, I have decided to offer you, my beloved congregants, an ethical will as my parting message.
These 32 years as your rabbi have been the best of my life. Together with you, I have been able to do what few rabbis have ever done – to create the ideal congregation based on the values of Torah, filled with the presence of God, and thriving spiritually, communally, financially, and administratively. I have spent half of my life here, visioning and fashioning this thriving Reform Jewish temple in what used to be the wilderness of Fairfax Station, and is now on the Reform Jewish map around the world. Over these years, I raised my children and yours, and over time many people have come to ask WWRPD -what would Rabbi Perlin do?
So, as I give you this ethical will, I want to share some of the lessons and experiences of my life that I treasure and value, as I look back on my soon to be 62 years of life.
My earliest memory of a God experience was one cool upstate New York Shabbat morning service at Camp Ramah in Glen Spay, in the summer of 1969. It was the first moment where I was certain that I felt the presence of God and from that moment on, my life was transformed. I remember the way the sunlight flowed through the trees, like liquid light illuminating every green leaf in our outdoor sanctuary. I go back to that moment when I want to touch the innocence of my faith and my earliest recollections of God. There were hundreds of campers there, but in my memory, there is only silence, summertime, me, and God. I believe that it was that moment that shaped my spiritual self, and it is that spiritual self, all grown up now and soon to be your Founding Rabbi Emerita, that I take with me into retirement.
Lesson #1: Find your quiet place, that anchors your life and your faith, and hold on to it at your core.
As I look back on my life and career as a rabbi, I have said many times that the thing I want to be remembered for is that I sat with people one at a time, offering counseling, a safe place to share, or cry, or explore. I received a beautiful thank you letter this week that confirmed what I had already written in an early draft of this sermon. The letter said, “To me, your ability to connect one-on-one, with hundreds of TBS congregants, is the hallmark of your rabbinate, even above your scholarship and preaching.” It was nice to have this sermon validated even before I delivered it. When you are with someone, be there completely, no cell phone, no distractions, no other thoughts, no multi-tasking. People know when you are holding back, and relationships suffer.
Lesson #2: Be present for others with 100% of your being. Life is too short to only give a part of yourself.
I was thrilled when Sheldon Low wrote the song for my retirement based on the verse from the Shema, “V’sheenantam livanecha…”- “And you shall teach your sons (literally), children (more politically correct).” Teaching my two sons about life and love, family and faith, values and what to value, has been one of the greatest privileges of my life. When TBS took the name “B’nai Shalom,” before I even signed on to be the rabbi, I broadened my passion for this quote and took upon myself as my life’s work to teach ‘our children’ – all of you and your children, wherever we were together. Last week, we sang Debbie Friedman’s And the Youth Shall See Visions, and in the song’s refrain it says, “I’ll have to teach them what I’ve learned so they will come to know…”. Sharing is a gift of love and legacy.
Lesson #3: Make your life a lesson in living and giving. Share what you have learned with others generously.
I have been fascinated to read and hear which lessons and sermons have meant the most to our members over the years. Many in our community, and extended community, remember things I had long forgotten. One person wrote this past week about the High Holy Day sermon I gave that focused on four phrases in a book written by Dr. Ira Byock, The Four Things That Matter Most: A Book About Living: “Please forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you.”
Lesson #4: Say you are sorry when you hurt people. Apologies are the first step to forgiveness in Judaism. Not being able to say you are sorry damages relationships, often beyond repair. And try to forgive if you can. Always say thank you, preferably in person or with a handwritten note if you can. Tell people you love them, often. You might not ever get a chance to say it if you don’t say it now.
Life is all about learning. We study history and preserve heritage, but it is okay to ask for help and it is okay to acknowledge that you don’t possess an answer to every question. I have tried to have thoughtful answers for all of your questions over the years, but I have also known that saying that I don’t know is as important as saying that I do.
Lesson #5: Never be afraid to say, “I don’t know. It keeps you humble.”
Perhaps the most important thing I have tried to do throughout my life is Lesson #6: Live every day as if it were your last. Life is fragile and we never know when the conversation we have will be our last. Make every minute count. Making the most of every single day and every single moment to care, or share, or do, or make a difference, changes the way you live and love.
My husband, Gary, is my role model. He is the smartest, wisest and, without a doubt, the nicest human being I have ever known. So much of the person I became was a credit to him and how he has lived his life. When Gary was asked to give the commencement address for Jonah’s high school graduation from TJ, he chose six words to offer the graduates. Our sons have lived by these six words ever since, and so have we. And, occasionally, we meet someone on the street or in a store who takes the time to thank him and quotes these six words to him with great appreciation:
Lesson #7: Be Bold-Be Patient-Be Generous.
That was Gary’s ethical will to the Class of 2003 and for our family. I can often be bold, and it always surprises me. I may not always be patient, but I live to be generous each and every day.
I have a book entitled Six-Word Memoirs on Jewish Life, which was a gift from PJ Library. Sharon has done this with our youth groupers, too. You summarize your life in six words. I was thinking about it driving home on Tuesday night. My six words to you upon my retirement are:
Lesson #8: Live your values – Keep your promises.
Years ago, I gave a sermon in which I wrote my essay for the national “This I Believe” NPR event, originally started by Edward R. Murrow for CBS in 1951. I have always seemed to be too busy to send it in, but I wanted everyone to know what I believed, so I wrote a sermon entitled, “I Believe in Promises.” The centerpiece to a life of values and living with integrity is being a person of your word, someone trustworthy in word and deed. I have never made a promise that I didn’t keep.
Long after I am gone, I pray that TBS and its members live the values we all treasure here in this synagogue. I believe that the synagogue is the institution of Jewish survival over the centuries. It is in the synagogue that community is created, Torah is taught, children are raised, and Jews are born. Lesson #9: Always belong to and support synagogues where your values are represented and lived. Give in time and resources as much as you can. And even if you don’t make the most of the experience, remember that you are making Judaism possible for others.
I am so proud that these 12 tapestries embody so much more than the 12 months of the Jewish calendar. They represent the values we live by as a congregation, and values that I personally hold dear.
Just look at the first tapestry. It came to us with all men, all with tallitot, praying at the Wall in Jerusalem. We sent it back to ask for men, women, and children, with and without kippot praying together at the Wall. It represents our value of seeing the world as it is and wanting to transform it into the world as it should be.
The second tapestry embraces the Jewish value of Hachnasat Orchim -Welcoming the Stranger, not just to our congregation or Judaism, but to our country and community for we were strangers in many strange lands and know the hardship of being “the other.” In our tapestry, families stay together as they are welcomed under the tallit and sukkah of peace and caring.
As you all know, feeding the hungry/Mazon is a passion for me and has become a core value of our synagogue’s identity. Our third tapestry for Kislev reminds us to feed the hungry and to value Hoda’ah/an attitude of gratitude.
Our next tapestry reminds us of the centrality of the synagogue in Jewish life, and the fact that our homes are called a mikdash me’at, a small sanctuary. I can’t go through all of the tapestries tonight, but just three more:
Above all else, I have wanted to make Judaism vital, fun, energized and engaging for young and old, so look at the tapestry for Adar and be Joyously Jewish!
Our Iyar tapestry #8, with the Israeli flag, reminds us of the Jewish imperative for Ahavat Yisrael – Love for Israel. We can be patriotically American and ardently Zionists at the same time. Today our love for Israel must be centered on working tirelessly for her to be a democratic and Jewishly pluralistic state. Our Reform congregations and causes need us. We must not abandon them. Reform Judaism needs us everywhere, and that is the value Gary and I will be pursuing in the coming years.
So many values and so little time. Our last tapestry, symbolic of our acceptance of all kinds of homes and families and marriages since our inception, is dedicated to peace in the home and love. These two values are at the core of my being and personal life. It all begins and ends with love. Lesson #10: Love unconditionally. Love God with all of your heart, and soul, and might. And love your neighbor as you love yourself. Love is not an if-then proposition. Love is about giving everything and accepting another without a score card. Let us teach our children that a world of love transcends all else.
I have loved you with all my heart, and all my soul, and all my might; with all my mind, with all my strength, and with all my being. Love each other as I have loved you. This is my ethical will for you TBS, with all my love. RARP