No Jewish prayer is more central to our liturgy than the Shema, the quintessential statement of faith that reminds us of the covenant we share with God. Each morning and each evening, when we lay down and when we rise, in the waters of the mikvah as one converts, at the end of the day and on the deathbed, we pray the words of the Shema asserting God’s uniqueness and affirming the relationship that exists between God and the Jewish people.
Within the words of the Shema are the basic tenets of Jewish theology. There is one God. As monotheists, we affirm our belief in one God. In the Torah, the final letters of both the first and last words of the Shema — the ayin of the word Shema, and the dalet of the word Echad — are larger than the rest of the letters. Together they spell ayd, the Hebrew word for “witness.” As Jews, we are responsible for being witnesses to God’s oneness, unity and power by “doing Jewish” daily.
The Shema, found in the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter six starting with verse four, continues with the V’ahavta and reminds us that with all that we are, with all that we have and with all that is within us, our heart, mind and soul are engaged with and for God. “Doing Jewish” is what we speak of and live when we lie down, when we rise up and every moment in between.
And these responsibilities come with obligations and duties, for us and the next generation: “You shall teach them to your children.” The message of the Shema urges us to consider our legacy beyond our lifetime.
Every parent dreams of the legacy they will leave behind for their children and grandchildren. Wanting the best for our children, we pray that their lives will be full of meaning and connection, success and growth.
There is a wonderful midrash on the Shema which beautifully demonstrates this point. In a poignant scene on his deathbed, the dying Jacob, our ancestor, calls together his sons. Worrying that after his death his sons will abandon their tradition, anxious about the future of his faith and family and what will happen when he dies, Jacob attempts to remind them from where they come, whispering to them: “Shema Yisrael — Hear O (my sons) Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” Imagine what it must have been like for Jacob when they responded “Just as you believe, so too do we, Adonai is our God, Adonai is one!”
Do not wait anxiously until the end. There is a way as parents and grandparents, to know that our wishes, our dreams and our legacies will be confirmed. We can secure the connection of our families, our traditions and our gifts for our children and grandchildren and the generations who come after us when we take the necessary steps to set up an estate plan. When we act and don’t wait, we are indeed witnesses to something unique. Here is how you do it:
Define your intentions in a will or trust. Set forth whom shall inherit your worldly possessions. This allows you to make charitable bequests, distribute tangible personal property between family members (with an eye toward the fact that family always fights over jewelry), determine when and how children will inherit, and allocate funds for important religious milestones, such as a bar/t mitzvah, wedding or the arrival of a child. You can also protect your loved ones from their own bad decisions, fiscal irresponsibility and divorce.
Select a guardian for minor children. The decision of who will raise your children if you pass is one of the biggest decisions you will ever make. Choose someone or a couple who share your values; have room in their lives, home, and heart; and will raise your children as you would have. Importantly, if your long-term guardian does not reside close to your home, choose a temporary, local guardian who can step in immediately to care for your children.
Make provisions for special needs children or disability trusts. Families with children who have special needs or disabilities, whether the children are minors or not, need to take specific precautions to ensure the children are taken care of for all of the child’s life. This includes financial and physical caretaking.
Determine who will administer your affairs. You need to select one or two individuals who will follow your dictates, close out your worldly affairs and distribute your assets to whom you want, when you want.
Let your family know your affairs are in order. It can be of great comfort for your children and grandchildren to know that you have made arrangements in the event of your passing. Tell them where your estate planning and other business or personal paperwork is in the physical sense. Make a list or tell them who they can contact for legal, business and accounting needs.
Take out the guesswork. Do you wish to be buried? Where? Do you wish to be an organ donor? Are there songs, poems or religious passages you wish recited at your funeral. Do you have favorite childhood memories or TV shows you want remembered? It may be incredibly difficult to think of your own funeral. However, when suffering from extreme grief, these are very hard choices for your family to make on your behalf. Give your family peace that you are happy with their choices and trust them to make good decisions.
Estate planning is intended to give you and your family peace of mind that everything is in order, and your family will be taken care of at the time of passing. Only you can determine when it is time to get your affairs in order. However, just as we should say the Shema before taking our last breath, so too should we have our estate plans in order. JN
Rabbi Jeremy Schneider is the spiritual leader of Temple Kol Ami in Scottsdale and a past president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Phoenix.
Allison L. Kierman is the managing partner of Kierman Law, PLC, an Arizona estate planning law firm based in Scottsdale. She is also on the board of directors for Congregation Beth Israel and the youth board of directors for the Martin Pear Jewish Community Center.