Let’s begin with a modern parable:

There was a man who had been widowed. The man had been happily married for many, many years. He and his wife had three accomplished grown children, and they had families of their own.

Upon his wife’s death, the man came to realize that he needed to sit down with his children to discuss his estate and his plans for their inheritance. We would label this man as “self-made.” Over a lifetime he had built up vast wealth. We might describe him as a titan of industry. He had run a small corporate empire. When he died, he told his children, his estate would be divided evenly among them.

Some time passed after this conversation with his children. Everyone went back to their normal, day-to-day routines. The man’s grief lessened. His strength returned. The man came to realize that he had entered into a new chapter of his life. Shortly thereafter, a new woman came into his life, and he had fallen in love with her. He asked her to marry him, and she accepted.

Now, this decision vexed his children greatly. They did not approve of this union.

In response, the father though was not compassionate nor was he kind, as he had been when his first wife died. Instead, he went to go see his lawyer.

“Write them out of my will,” he instructed his lawyer, “Place the entirety of the estate in my new wife’s name. My children shall no longer receive my gifts, as they withhold their blessing from me.”


I am left to wonder: Was this man doing something that was correct, right, or just?

In some ways, I wish this were a morality play, where different personifications of Justice and Mercy appeared on stage, dialoguing with the father, with the children, with the new wife, about how we behave in families. When we look at situations such as this, I wonder if we can draw conclusions as to what is correct. I wonder if we can say anything definitive. In truth, this parable is a lesson in grey moral space, a situation in which absolutes are undefinable.

Many argue that money is not moral, and therefore what we do with it is not influenced by that area of thinking. This man could do what he wanted with his money, after all, he had earned it.

Still, another might say that money is a tool, and how we use money speaks to the moral decisions we make on a regular basis. How we allocate our dollars in a budget or in an agreement, that is a values statement. In response to his children’s disapproval, the father acted out his angst, using his money as the flint to spark family conflict. He was making an emotional statement about how his children were making him feel in the present, with little to no regard for the family’s history, for the relationships and connections built over his children’s lifetimes, or for the family’s future. The man, in shutting his children out of his will, was shutting out any conversation about responsibility to and for one another. He was ending the conversation. He was getting the last word in this debate.

Money in its own right does not know about morality, but how we handle money, what we say with our money, that is a morality play we can act out. When it comes to matters of inheritance, in the Jewish tradition, we have an ethic by which to live. There is Torah on this. That ethic is known as achareiut, which is the value of responsibility to and for one another.

When we speak about responsibility in Hebrew, a message is imbedded for us within the word itself. The invisible hands that inscribed the Hebrew lexicon were directing our attention to a particular concept. The word achareiut, comes from the word acher, meaning “other.” Embedded within our sacred tongue is the profoundly deep statement: we cannot consider the concept of responsibility without factoring in the other, without our relationships. Responsibility is about you and me, together. To whom are we responsible? For whom are we responsible? Rabbi Harold Kushner reminds us that “We are whom we love.” We are defined by our relationships. Martin Buber teaches in his masterpiece, I and Thou, that there is no I–there is no concept of the self–outside of our relationships. I can only experience myself in the context of my relationship with You. In the JEWISH mindset, we are responsible to one another; we are responsible for one another. Therefore, when we look through a JEWISH lens at grey moral spaces–like in how we divide up inheritances among multiple children, or revoke that honor–it reveals just how challenging it can be to do what is right by one another.

Complicated inheritances are nothing new in our sacred chain of JEWISH transmission. For millennia, Jews have been telling stories about inheritances given, stolen, received, and revoked. Ecclesiastes wrote, “V’ein kol chadash tachat ha-shemesh, there is nothing new under the sun.” We are a people who know about the tension in families when it comes to matters of inheritance.

Tomorrow morning, Rabbi Gurvis will read from Genesis 22, telling the story of the binding of Isaac. In Conservative and Orthodox synagogues, though, they will read that story on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. In those communities, on the first day, they read a story that comes just before. The story is all about Abraham’s older boy, Ishmael, and his mother, Sarah’s slave woman, the Egyptian Hagar. As we look at that story, we come to see–like the modern parable of the father who takes his children out of his will–that matters of inheritance are morally grey, while we try to juggle our inherent responsibilities that we feel toward one another.

The story goes that Sarah was having trouble conceiving. She and Abraham needed progeny, or else their enterprise was for naught. The story of Sarah and Abraham at its core is all about multiplication; their story is only made meaningful when considered in the context of future generations. From the time that Avram and Sarai were instructed, “Lech l’cha, go forth, from your father’s land to the land that I will show you,” they were tasked with building a people. Since she could not conceive, Sarah gave Hagar to her husband as another wife, for there to be a child to receive their inheritance. This first child born was Ishmael.

But then, Sarah did conceive. This was Isaac, the child that God had promised to Sarah. Suddenly, the family situation changed. The will defining the inheritance needed to be rewritten. Sarah knew this, and wanted to assure that her son, Isaac, would receive the birthright. 

One day, Sarah saw Ishmael–presumably a young boy–“playing.” Some readings of this story say that Sarah encounter Ishmael laughing. Was he laughing at her? Did he know that he was slated for the inheritance over her son? Sarah felt threatened. She went to her husband, and “she said to [him], ‘Cast out that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son, Isaac.'” Again, we are in grey moral space.

Sarah was Abraham’s wife in earnest, the Egyptian Hagar was her slave, and both boys were Abraham’s. Who was responsible to whom? Who was responsible for whom? Abraham did what Sarah requested of him; still, “The matter distressed him greatly, for it concerned a son of his.”

Abraham and Sarah’s was a situation in which absolutes did not exist. In my mind, that is why Abraham was distressed. As my teacher, Rabbi Norman Cohen writes, “Life in Abraham’s family was fraught with ongoing turmoil. For all of his successes… his relationships with his own kin left much to be desired.”

Grey moral space–it is not a pleasant place to be, but it reveals how achareiut–responsibility to and for one another–really works, and it reveals what happens when we ignore the complications of achareiut. When it comes to matters of inheritance, we should be like Abraham, who wanted to do right by both of his sons. Sarah took care of her own son, at the expense of the others within the family. Abraham should have taken consideration of the whole family. This biblical situation reveals a universal tension. That is the tension between egoism and consideration of the whole, between putting oneself first over looking for mutually advantageous solutions.

Some Bible scholars read this story as a metaphor for the experience of the People of Israel. Perhaps we can even read it as a metaphor for any nation or people. How do we best pass along our wisdom, our wherewithal, and our the wealth gained over a lifetime to the next generation? Each generation of a nation has been given a gift from the ones before, how are we to responsibly carry that forward?

This question loomed large for our Sages, and it can be found hovering in the background of the stories they told about the generation’s before them, and about their time as well. Kol Yisrael aravim zeh b’zeh, our ancient Sages taught in the Talmud, we–as a people–are responsible for one another. The concept of achareiut is how we remain a people across the decades and across lands.

Our Sages were direct, though: the JEWISH understanding of inheritance lay not in the financial realm alone. Our inheritances come in many forms.

In the Talmud, we are taught that a parent is responsible to teach a child many things, with 3 in particular: We are responsible to teach a child Torah, we are responsible to teach a child a trade, and we are responsible to teach a child how to swim. How great is that? Keeping these three lessons together, we then have a progression for our children’s development.

We teach Torah in that we teach ethics. The Torah is more than cute parables and trivial instructions. Our Torah is our most sacred teacher, for it may guide us through the grey moral spaces that we face in our lives. Torah is a mirror in which we can gaze, seeing ourselves and our own experiences reflected back at us. We teach our children Torah, we give them Torah as an inheritance, in that they learn a JEWISH way of being. We may find ourselves in a modern parable, not certain which direction is the correct, right, or just way forward. And if we have an ethic by which to live, if we live on the path of Torah, we know that we are not forging out on an unknown direction alone; the ethic we have inherited and the ethic by which we are invited to live guides us based on millennia of accumulated wisdom. 

One cannot live by code and creed alone, though. It is incumbent upon us to teach our children a trade. We assure that our children will have a livelihood. Our responsibility to our children is to know that they can survive, and that they can thrive. Abraham was distressed as he cast Ishmael out of his house, I imagine, b/c Ishmael was not yet ready for this. Could he survive the world out there? Connect this to our lives today: Is this not the conversation we have with students as they prepare to graduate from high school or college? A trade–or in our modern mindset, think of it as ingenuity, a strong drive to work and be productive–that is one of the greatest gifts we can inherit from the generation’s before us. It is the motor that runs from generation to generation.

We can live by our ethics through Torah, and we hold fast to our livelihood by our trades, but why swimming? It is about separation. That is the lesson we teach our children when we teach them how to swim. We can do the best to teach our children how to behave in their relationships, how to create a livelihood for themselves, and we also have to recognize that the greatest inheritance we give our children is an opportunity to figure some things out for themselves, and that when they do, when they are successful, they have gained some independence, that they have an ability to swim on their own. Parents can remain close by, they can stay in the water; still, the children are swimming on their own.

Torah, a trade, and swimming–along with guiding our children to the chuppah–our Sages taught that there is more to inheritance that the dollar signs attached. In a world of moral ambiguity, in which we live in grey spaces often, our tradition teaches that through our achareiut, through our responsibility to and for one another, we gain a greater inheritance: we possess an ability and a know how to navigate that space.

May we live by our relationships, driven to do what is just and right by our family, by our friends, and by All that is Divine in this world. May we be blessed to pass on an inheritance beyond physical treasure. May we be blessed with the inheritances of wisdom and understanding and knowledge, passed down from generation to generation, through the teachings of Torah. And, may this year, be a good and sweet new year for each and every one of us.

Amen. Shanah Tova.

Delivered Erev Rosh Hashanah 5773
September 17, 2012
Rabbi Neil E. Hirsch
Temple Shalom of Newton

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