The ethics of our fathers and uncles

Words to live by

When I was 24, my father died and I inherited some money. It wasn’t a lot because, really, everything went to my mother, as was appropriate. And the money I inherited is long, long gone, having been spent on my many, many years of graduate school. What is not gone, what I still have from my father, what I can never lose from my father, are the values that he instilled within me.
There is actually a tradition within Judaism of leaving ethical wills to our heirs. The money and property, if there was any, was taken care of separately, but we have a tradition of trying to summarize and pass down the ethical wisdom we have learned through our lives and want our heirs to follow. The tradition of ethical wills stems from this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, the last Torah portion in the Book of Genesis. At the very end of the portion, Jacob is lying on his deathbed and we read: “Jacob called his sons and said, ‘Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come. Assemble and hearken, O sons of Jacob; Hearken to Israel your father.’” Jacob then proceeds to tell his children what will befall them based on their past behavior. This final farewell is seen as an attempt to get them to act better in the future.
When my nephew started college, I began writing down some of my wisdom for him and I would like to share some of it with you as an ethical will of sorts.
To my dear nephew,
Now that you have gone away to college and no longer have the benefit of your parents’ constant advice, I would like to give you the benefit of my own wisdom and experience. In no particular order:
God willing, you too will eventually have children or nieces or nephews. Never underestimate the pleasure one can have in embarrassing them. Remember, however, that the embarrassment should be of the variety: “I cannot believe I am related to this person.” Embarrassing someone for their own traits or foibles is just mean. Also, be careful not to cross over from teasing to bullying. Teasing someone you love can be a way to show how fond you are of them. But teasing someone you don’t love or like is really just bullying and you should never be a bully.
When you mess up — and you will — be an adult about it. Apologize and try to make up for what you did. It only makes you look small when you can’t admit that you’re in the wrong.
Live your life generously. Show your love and affection generously because the ones you love should never be in doubt that you love them. Too often when we’re angry with people we are tempted to withhold our love and affection as a way of punishing them. Rather, express honestly “I love you, but I’m really angry over x, y or z that you’ve done.”
Live your life generously. Give freely and share what you have with those who are in need. Other people — your parents, me, your friends, your teachers, even random strangers — have all helped you for no other reason than you’ve needed the help and they have been in the position to help you. Pay it forward and help others in return. Human beings are social creatures and we all need each other, so help when you can.
Cultivate a sense of gratitude and don’t take things for granted. When I look around the world and I see how other people are living, I realize how fortunate I am. Even when I had very little in my life, at my lowest points, I did have things I was grateful for and when I focused on what I had, I didn’t mind as much what I didn’t have. In the words of the Sages: “Who is the one who is rich? The one who is happy with their portion.” Don’t get me wrong. I like having stuff that is important to me and being able to eat what I like rather than ramen, again, is really terrific. Being grateful doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to achieve that which we want for ourselves and our families. But be grateful for what you do have in the moment.
Remember to do laundry, especially your sheets. Smells that you no longer notice are highly noticeable to others, even if they’re too polite to say anything. Similarly, don’t become blind to the poverty, need and injustice that surrounds us every day. True, we can’t live in a state of constant agitation over what we see, but neither should we become so thick skinned that we no longer notice it. Again in the words of our Sages: “You are not required to finish the work, but neither are your free to leave off from it.”
There are two ways to go touring. One way is to see everything possible, rushing from sight to sight, taking snapshots to prove that we were there, even if we only spent 15 minutes. Another is take a more limited view and take the time to truly experience the few sights that we do go to see. In my experience, there are more sights to see, more foods to taste, more books to read, more plays to go to than I ever could in my lifetime. Our lives are inherently limited, not infinite. So in my mind, enjoy what you do to its fullest, don’t just rush from one thing to another, because there will always be more that we leave undone.
Your loving Uncle Ben.

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