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“If I am Not for Myself, Who Will Be For Me?” (Ethics of our Fathers)

This famous ancient teaching of Hillel the Elder is not just a pithy aphorism but a call to action to get our affairs in order in case of death.

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (d. 1933), the saintly scholar known as the “Chofetz Chaim,” cited this passage to urge people to sign a financial will (“last will”). He added that they should do this even when there is no immediate fear of death, and all the more so when they age. 

If you won’t take the time to tell people your preferences, how will they know? How can you expect them to do this for you later?

A century earlier, Rabbi Chaim Fallagi (d. 1868), the great Sephardic scholar, cited this maxim to urge people to plan their own funeral arrangements, including trying on burial shrouds. He gave two reasons: 

  • There’s nothing wrong with thinking about one’s own mortality. It makes people take life seriously and not engage in frivolous behavior. 
  • It ensures that you’ll receive the type of funeral that you want. 

The complexities of modern lifestyles dictate that we need to make additional arrangements beyond burial plans and financial wills.  These steps help protect us and our interests.  “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”

But they also help protect the needs of your loved ones and prevent unnecessary angst, and even strife, in the event of disability or death. The more a person has organized and communicated his or her wishes, the less speculation, conflict, and pain the bereaved will face at their time of grief.  

As the maxim goes on to say, “If I am only for myself, what am I?” 

Here are some important ways in which one can protect themselves and their family members:

Emergency Contact Information

If something happens, God forbid, will emergency personnel know who to contact?

Get an emergency contact card for your wallet and add emergency contact information (available on iPhone and Android) or an ICE (In Case of Emergency) app to your phone home screen.

Life Insurance and Disability Insurance:

Nobody ever plans to be diagnosed with a terminal illness or to suffer a debilitating injury in a car accident. We cannot predict these events.  But we know that they happen around us. We need to internalize that they can happen to anyone, including ourselves. Why compound the tragedy with financial instability and hardship? Pray for these things to never happen, but take measures to protect yourself and your loved ones in case they do. 

Financial Will:

Writing a financial will can expedite the handling of your estate and make sure that your loved ones get the financial support that they need quickly.  It also prevents disputes over property distribution.  You can also leave a legacy charitable donation to the organizations that you want to support.  (See here for an explanation about how to write a will in a manner that addresses any halakhic concerns regarding Biblical laws of inheritance).

For those with children who are minors:  You can include critical directions regarding who will have responsibility for them. Doesn’t it pay to think about those questions in advance – just in case?  

Advanced Healthcare Directive and Conversation Guide:

Many critical decisions need to be made in a person’s healthcare journey. At times, these can be questions of life and death, and you might not be capable of expressing your opinion. Who do you want to serve as a proxy and speak on your behalf? Which rabbi should they consult with?  What are your preferences and values when it comes to questions of pain management and terminal care? These are not just questions for the elderly or infirm. These are directives that every responsible adult should prepare. Ematai provides Netivot: a user-friendly advance healthcare directive and conversation guide to help you express your preferences, which you can then share and discuss with your parents, children, rabbi, healthcare provider, and others. Your answers should be reviewed on a periodic basis.

Ethical Wills

Since the time of Jacob, our Biblical patriarch, Jews have left final teachings to their loved ones that communicate their beliefs and passions. This is an incredible way to transmit your values to the next generation and inspire them for many years to come. In previous generations, this could be accomplished only through pen and paper.  Today, one can also record and video a message for posterity.  Don’t just pass on your capital assets. Leave a vision that they can take with them wherever they go in life. (For more details about how to create an ethical will, see here).

Burial Arrangements

Do you want to be buried in a specific place? Next to loved ones? In Israel? In order to help your family during this difficult time, and ensure that your preferences are followed,  it is important to  let your family know. You can also do the following: Purchase reserved burial plots and other burial services (which are frequently cheaper “pre-need” than they are “at-need.”). Designate who you’d like to speak at your funeral. Record biographical information or other highlights that you’d like recalled at your funeral.

Organized Paperwork:

Create a safe physical or digital location in which key information may be safely stored yet easily accessible by those who might need it. Let them know how to access this information.

These include:

  1. The documents discussed above.
  2. Other financial information, including: Insurance agents and stock brokers, bank accounts, retirement accounts, credit cards, safety deposit boxes (and key locations), lists of assets, etc…
  3. Useful information like email accounts, frequent flier numbers, phone passwords,  internet account passwords, etc…

Some of these steps are easy to take. Others will take a bit more time.  Yet there’s no better time than today to get started on organizing your affairs.

As Hillel’s maxim concludes, “If not now – when?”  Ematai!

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