Religious Life

A Noble Legacy – A Weekly Letter from Rabbi Alexander Davis – October 12, 2018

Shalom Chaverim,

Over this past week, I enjoyed reading about the 2018 Nobel Prize winners. These leaders in their fields are changing our world for the better.  So, too did Alfred Nobel himself.

Nobel amassed a fortune as a Swedish munition’s manufacturer. Among other things, he invented dynamite. What motivated him to dedicate his estate to honor and reward those who benefit humanity? It was a chance event. When his brother, Ludwig, died, a French newspaper mistakenly ran Alfred’s obituary. Alfred was horrified by what he read. The paper described  him as, “The Merchant of Death” writing, Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.”

At that moment, Nobel knew that was not how he wanted to be remembered. Shortly thereafter, he established the prize. Today, everyone remembers him for the good he has done through the prize rather than by his 335 patents.

Most of us don’t have the chance to read our obituary in advance. But we can determine how we will be remembered. No, we need not all have large estates or make new scientific discoveries that forever change science. How we are remembered is a function of how we live and the message we share with future generations.

Over the years, I have spoken to many families about creating ethical wills. These sacred documents describe the legacy of values we wish to leave. It is a chance to record our story, explain the principles by which we lived, the beliefs we held, the traditions we cherished and observed. Families who have put these thoughts to paper and have shared them with their children and grandchildren have found them to be a wonderful gift, cherished for their sincerity and openheartedness.

Recently, I learned about a variation on the ethical will: The Forever Letter. While an ethical will is generally written from an older generation to a younger generation, The Forever Letter can be written to someone older, younger or of your same generation. Sharing your love and your wisdom deepens the relationship with the important people in your lives.

In her book, The Forever Letter: Writing What We Believe For Those We Love, Rabbi Elana Zaiman, recalls the story of Alfred Nobel writing, “How does this story motivate us to write a forever letter? It reminds us to take stock of our lives and to ask ourselves if the way we’ve lived our lives up until this point is the way we want to be remembered.” The process of writing invites us to reflect on what matters most and to share it with the people who matter most.

Rabbi Zaiman is a wonderful teacher. We look forward to welcoming her to Beth El on Oct. 19-21 as a scholar-in-resident underwritten by Lois Perwien in memory of her parents, Ben and Florence Brodsky.

I hope you’ll join us for the Friday night dinner and Sunday morning Forever Letter Writing Workshop.

Rabbi Alexander Davis