An Intro to The Forever Letter

by Elana Zaiman

The following is an excerpt from the introduction of The Forever Letter forthcoming from Llewellyn Worldwide in September 2017.

I began teaching on the topic of ethical wills when I was ordained as a rabbi in 1993, but it wasn't until the early 2000's that I began to take my teaching on the road. When I did, I met people at airports and train stations, on airplanes and trains who would ask me where I was going. I'd respond, "I'm going to a community to teach on the topic of ethical wills."

Most people had no idea of what ethical wills were. Some thought that the term ethical will referred to writing a last will and testament in an ethical manner. Others thought it referred to writing a health-care directive or a living will. I explained that it was neither, that an ethical will was a letter we wrote to our children and grandchildren to pass on our values. People resonated with the idea immediately, but the unanimous response went something like this: If you want to encourage people to write this letter, you can't call it an ethical will. It's not sexy enough.

But there was another reason why I couldn't call this letter an ethical will. Ethical wills are about imparting values from the older to the younger generation, and I had an experience early on in my teaching that enabled me to see this approach was too limited. I returned to Park Avenue Synagogue, the community where I began my rabbinic career, to serve as a scholar-in-residence on the topic of ethical wills. At the time, Amy, a congregant and friend, told me that her son, Will (by then a college graduate) worked in town, wanted to see me again, and planned to come to the evening writing workshop. She had suggested to him that this might be the wrong venue since he had no children or grandchildren to write to, but Will said this was the only free time he had in his schedule, so he'd be there. I was honored he was making the time to see me. I had watched will grow from a pre-teen to a young adult. The last time I had seen him, he'd been in his sophomore year of high school.

On the evening of the workshop, Will appeared. He was a taller, more handsome version of himself, still slender, light skinned, wide-eyed with thick brown hair, and the same smile, gusto and enthusiasm. Aside from Will and a single woman on staff, the group that evening consisted of parents and grandparents. Before I presented the writing prompts, I gave will the option of writing a letter to himself looking head five years into his future and contemplating the values he hoped to carry forward or of writing a letter to his parents to thank them for all he had learned in their home. I told him he could either write to the prompts or just do his own thing. Will wrote along with the group. I had no idea which option he had chosen.

Until the next day, when I saw his mother.

Amy came up to me and said, "Last night I received the most beautiful letter I've ever received." I later learned that Will had used the prompts I had presented to the group that evening to write to his parents.

For me, what began as an exercise to welcome Will into the community of ethical will writers who were passing their values forward, turned into seeing the ethical will as inspiration for a new kind of letter, the forever letter, a letter that would enable: pre-teens, teens, and young adults to express their values, love, and appreciation (to ask forgiveness and to forgive) backward; adults in their fifties, sixties, and seventies, still blessed with parents, aunts, uncles, teachers, and mentors to do the same; and people who may not have elders or children in their lives, but who certainly have love, values, and appreciation to share, as well as forgiveness they want to ask for or grant, to write to their spouses, siblings, and friends.

While it's true that writing letters to our children or grandchildren to pass on our values is a profoundly different experience than writing letters to our parents, grandparents, teachers, partners, spouses, or friends, there's a common thread that all these letters share, and it is this: the desire to live our values with greater intention, to better understand ourselves, to make ourselves known to the people we love, and to heal what may be broken between us.

In this age of instant and constant communication, many consider writing letters to be anachronistic. The Forever Letter debunks that belief, proving instead that forever letters are perfect containers for our most precious nonmaterial possessions--our beliefs, wisdom, love, appreciation, forgiveness, and more--showing how, like any material object we may craft or build, the process enriches us, grows us, and helps us push ourselves to become our best.


The Power of Letters, Historical Inspiration, This Book and it's Intent

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