Today, I drafted a living will, delineating the course of action to be taken should I ever become incapacitated and unable to make decisions for myself. This will extends beyond the medical to include treatment of my body after death, funeral, burial and management of my bank account. Lacking a spouse or children, I would leave behind the words I’ve spilled across the internet and the work I’ve done in the nonprofit sector. I own no property nor possess any family mementos. I have neither pets nor plants for whom to arrange care. I don’t like to think in terms of “legacy,” but in considering my own death, I can’t help but reflect on my journey.
When it comes to legacies, many of us place considerable value on the tangible. Individuals bequeath legacy donations to further certain causes, occasionally earning their names on a building, room, or bench. Others leave substantial funds for loved ones, or even homes, boats, and vehicles. Treasured heirlooms are passed from one generation to another and checks are issued as 401Ks and savings accounts are closed.
For me, none of this means anything. In my view, the only legacy worth anything is how good we’ve been to one another. This week’s parshah provides a useful guide for such a legacy. Known almost universally as the Ten Commandments, it’s a broad template for living a life of character and integrity.
In Judaism, what we know as the Ten Commandments are more accurately categories among numerous other mitzvot. In this way, they may be read both in literal terms and metaphorically. Certainly, “You shall have no other gods besides Me,” can be read as the strict prohibition against devotion to pagan gods and idol worship. It may also be applied to our own 21st century priorities. In words we may worship God, in practice we worship money, celebrity, fashion, sex, food, work, and anything else that derails our focus from the best potential of our truest nature. When I’m gone, I’d rather people remember my commitment to Jewish values, rather than my consumer credentials.
“Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God,” is usually interpreted as a mini-vacation from our jobs and semi-mandatory synagogue attendance. It speaks also to work-life balance, a theme relevant for us all. Removing ourselves from our daily striving has the potential to promote oft neglected personal reflection, as well as connection with friends and loved ones, and healing rest for our bodies. Such is necessary for equilibrium in our lives.
Commandments five through ten encompass the realm of human behavior towards one another. Within these words reside the fundamental building blocks of a righteous life. Be good to your parents, biological or otherwise. Indeed, treat all elders with respect and compassion. Our American culture places such a premium on youth that we possess no collective means of honoring those much closer to being called home. The prohibition against adultery may be understood more broadly as sexual immorality, including sexual violence and abuse. In a world where sexual assault is rampant, this is especially relevant. Cheating, lying, and stealing are all prohibited and for good reason. Not only do such actions affect individuals, they negatively impact the entire community, as well.
Many of us regard the Ten Commandments as cliché, and inapplicable within the complexities of our modern lives. We may even see them as quaint and utterly irrelevant. They are worth a closer look. These Ten Commandments speak of universal human behavior, transcending time or place. They encourage us to be respectful of ourselves and others, fostering co-creation of true community. And that’s a mighty fine legacy to leave behind.