During Ellul we are expected to make a “Heshbon Nefesh” – literally an accounting of the soul. It is a time for honest reflection, a time to look at what we have done, what we failed to do, what we have become as a consequence. The language of the Heshbon Nefesh is business-like – there is a sort of book-keeping element to it as we are reminded, in the words of Pirkei Avot, that “The day is short, the work is great, the workers are lazy, the payment is much, and the Master of the House is pressing.”
For some, weighing up a mitzvah against a missed opportunity to do a mitzvah, might be a sensible and comfortable way to proceed. But there are other ways to do this in our tradition, and my favourite is framed as Tzava’ah – the writing of an ethical will.
In order to really make a Heshbon Nefesh we need to clarify and explicate what truly is important for us, to think about our soul at the end of its earthly existence standing before the Holy One. The day is short, the work is great – and God waits to see what we make of our lives.
In the book of Genesis there is an interesting deathbed scene. Jacob says to his long-lost son Joseph
אָמוּתָה הַפָּעַם אַחֲרֵי רְאוֹתִי אֶת־פָּנֶיךָ כִּי עוֹדְךָ חָי:
Translated usually as “Now I can die, for I have seen your face [and know that] you are indeed alive.”
Yet the Hebrew is not quite as clear as the translation would have us think – Jacob actually says “I can die this time” – as if there are many deaths in life, and this particular event is the latest in a chain of other deaths.
So what is Jacob really saying when he speaks of more than one death? There is a commentary on this verse that reads it as teaching that while everyone dies physically, one may also die – or not die – spiritually. How would one not die spiritually? By ensuring that one’s actions in the world help to sustain it, by leaving a legacy of values as well as of mitzvot, by telling stories that fix in the memory, by teaching others what is truly important in life so that they may use the guidance “b’shem omro” –recalling the memory of the person who helped them to understand.
When God speaks of Abraham just before the destruction of Sodom, God reflects on their relationship and says (Gen 18:19)
כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת־בָּנָיו וְאֶת־בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְהֹוָה לַעֲשֹוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט
For I have known him in order that he may instruct his children and his household after him, to keep the ways of the Eternal to do צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט righteousness and justice.
The idea that Abraham must instruct (Tza’va’ah) his descendants with the values God wants them to have is particularly powerful in this context. Right now Abraham has only the promise of Isaac to be born, we are about to see a whole city – with parents and children – destroyed. But in this moment of potential and of uncertainty, comes the idea of passing on values into the future. And from here comes the notion of the ethical will (tzava’ah) , a document that would go alongside a will detailing what to do with possessions and physical objects of value, and instead detailing the ethics and values the you want your descendants or students or any reader of the document to know and to absorb them into the way they will live their life.
So what do we want to be remembered for? What do we want to pass on as good ethical guidance to those we love? What is the particular wisdom that means that passing it to the next generations we are ensuring we will die only physically, but not spiritually- for we will continue to exist in the stories, the memories, the values and the love the next generations will absorb from us.
Take some time to reflect not just on what we have or have not done, but what we would like to be remembered for, what legacy of memories and illustrative values we would like our lives to model. Writing an ethical will can be transformative, as it helps remind us of what we would like our lives to embody, and that reminder is the template against which our Heshbon Nefesh will be measured.