In The Denial of Death, anthropologist Ernest Becker reminds us of the tensions in the human heart. Fearful of our mortality, we energize ourselves to define our lives with meaning and significance. As Becker tells us, "One of the crucial projects of a person's life, of true maturity, is to resign oneself to the process of aging."1 He suggests that we can achieve such resignation by "earning a feeling of primary value, of cosmic specialness, of ultimate usefulness to creation, of unshakable meaning."2 Believing that a life has meaning makes us feel unique and valuable to family and community and helps ease resignation and acceptance.
By reflecting on how we have lived, what we have achieved, where we have failed, and what is yet to be accomplished, we can begin to share with others our life's meaning. At midlife, we begin to realistically face our limits and our death. Communicating what we learn as we struggle to accept our mortality can provide a legacy that reaffirms the value of our lives.3
A ritual to express one's sense of meaning and understanding of life can ease the acceptance of aging and death. The following ceremony is designed to observe reaching this point in our lives. It is based on Pirkei Avot's calling the age of fifty the "age of counsel," "ben chamishim le-eitza." Several years ago, our synagogue established this observance in which someone fifty years of age or older would become a "Father of Counsel" or a "Mother of Counsel"–an Av Eitza or an Em Eitza.
An individual achieves Av or Em Eitza status by writing a Tzava'at Eitza, a Testament of Counsel. This testament addresses the important lessons he or she has learned in life–insights on human relationships, coping with hardship, and finding fulfillment–and the message one has tried to convey through life.
Unlike the classical ethical will, which was usually addressed to family members, the Tzava' at Eitza is presented to the synagogue community, either on the first morning of Sukkot or on the Shabbat during Sukkot. Sukkot, or the "Festival of the Ingathering" when Ecclesiastes is read, is a fitting time to share a harvest of reflections. In contrast to Ecclesiastes' laments, this program offers a time for every purpose under heaven. The individual testaments are collected in a Sefer Eitza, a Book of Counsel, and placed in the congregation's library.
A second factor that makes the testament different from an ethical will is its preparation. Those who wish to become an Av or Em Eitza study with a rabbi or teacher. This study begins with Ecclesiastes and examines classical and modern ethical wills as well as participants' lives, accomplishments, and failures. The group also explores feelings about death and dying. Participants are encouraged to keep journals, which become the basis for the Tzava' at Eitza.
The vehicle of becoming an Av or Em Eitza is new, but it is rooted in traditional study and reflection. The Av or Em Eitza celebration creates heroic role models, and shows us a path, as the Psalmist wrote, "to number our days so we may attain a heart of wisdom."
Following are two excerpts from Testaments of Counsel that demonstrate the wisdom gleaned through the process of becoming an Av or Em Eitza.
Live your life with an open hand, not a clenched fist. Remember what you are is God's gift to you. What you become is your gift to God.
|—from Marge LaZar's 1992 Testament of Counsel|
Desperate for connection, not knowing how to tap its source;
|—from Naomi Rosenberg's 1994 Testament of Counsel|