A man once came to the Hafetz Haim to review his will and determine whether it was composed properly. He noted to the renowned sage that he had set aside money to provide for his wife and children.
The Hafetz Haim reviewed the will carefully and then said, “There is someone you have left out.”
“Left out?” the man replied in astonishment. “Who could that be?”
The Hafetz Haim answered: “Yourself.”
When drafting a will, many people tend to think only of the loved ones they will, after 120 years, be leaving behind, and ensure to distribute their assets in a manner that will best provide for the surviving family members. But as the aforementioned story of the Hafetz Haim teaches, just as we put money away for ourselves during our lifetime, it is wise to allocate money for ourselves after our departure from this world, as well.
After a person leaves this world, the mitzvot he performed during his lifetime serve as both his safeguard and elevator, protecting him from an undesirable fate and lifting his soul to the higher heavenly spheres. In fact, the reward we receive for our good deeds is two-pronged—we’re given credit for both the mitzvotthemselves, and also for the effects of those mitzvot. Each and every mitzvah we perform generates a certain power that affects many other people, and this impact is credited directly to our heavenly “account.”
Applying this well-established concept to the mitzvah of sedakah (charity), the effects of our charitable donations continue to pay us dividends even long after the check is deposited, and we continue accruing reward as long as the impact of our gift is felt. When we give money to a poor person, or to a yeshiva, kinees (synagogue) or community organization, we receive credit for each and every mitzvah facilitated through our contribution. Charity is, essentially, the most secure and profitable long-term investment we could ever make.
Tapping Into the Power of Wills
Jewish Will Power, an independent non-profit organization, is promoting an innovative way to link the concepts of sedakah and posterity. Many Jews observe the time-honored mitzva of donating one-tenth of their income to charity during their lifetimes. But just imagine if community members continued this custom after their passing, bequeathing 10 percent (or more) of their assets to charity. Would this not eliminate or at least assuage the debt that plagues so many of our institutions? At a time when so many of our families are overburdened by exorbitant yeshiva tuition bills, and so many worthwhile organizations are forced to close down for lack of funding, Jewish Will Power aims to bolster fundraising efforts by focusing on the heretofore underutilized capital in wills.
Jewish Will Power envisions two possible ways to donate. The first is through a monetary gift, either by assigning a percentage of one’s assets to charity or by combining money from one’s will with pledged donations of other family members[DS2] . The second is through a gift of property, whereby real estate owners bequeath a building to an organization with the stipulation that it be used as rental property in perpetuity, or sold so the organization can purchase a rental property with a higher yield. This method avoids the taxes incurred through selling property, provides cash flow to the organization, allows for refinancing as the property appreciates in value, and could even facilitate the purchase of more property with the proceeds – a pleasantly rewarding cycle.
Writing a Kosher Will
Of course, as Orthodox Jewish Americans, we recognize the importance of writing wills that are both halachically valid and legally binding according to American law. Rabbi Daniel Yelenik, an attorney with expertise in both Jewish and American estate law, explains, “The Torah provides very specific instructions relating to who inherits property after a person’s death and in what proportion.” The basic laws are outlined in Bamidbar 27:6-11 and in Devarim 21:15-17, and establish that a man must bequeath his inheritance to his sons, assigning a double portion to his firstborn son, even if he prefers the second son to his first. If a man dies and has no sons, then his inheritance is given to his daughters. If he has no daughters, he should pass his inheritance onto his brothers, or, if there are no brothers, to his father’s brothers. The Torah refers to this set of rules as a “hukat mishpat – statute of judgment,” a halachically binding system that must be followed.
If a man wishes to divide his assets in a different manner from the system prescribed by the Torah, then he must bestow the assets on the recipients as gifts during his lifetime. Since a living person is entitled to distribute gifts in any way he wishes, assigning one’s property as gifts before death circumvents the halachic dictates governing inheritance. The will’s text must therefore be formulated in such a way that bequests which do not conform to Jewish inheritance laws are transferred before, and not after, the person’s death.
Unfortunately, many Jews fail to leave behind a will, effectively conferring upon the state the power to distribute their assets. Many others make a point of writing wills, but neglect the American laws involved, rendering these wills void and unenforceable. And then there are those who follow the legal stipulations but are unaware of the halachot regarding inheritance, such that their wills are legal, but not “kosher.” Jewish Will Power seeks to ensure compliance with both halachic and legal requirements, advocating the use of attorneys who are also knowledgeable in halacha, like Rabbi Yelenik, for personal, expert guidance.
Reviving a Neglected Mitzvah
Rabbi Yelenik, who holds rabbinical ordination from Ner Israel in Baltimore and a J.D. at Georgetown University Law Center, fondly recalls the invaluable advice he received from Rav Naftali Neuberger z.s.l. “He encouraged me to always look for areas in the secular law that could be utilized to help Kelal Yisrael and further enhance religious observance.”
The area of wills, Rabbi Yelenik believes, is one area where this goal can and must be achieved, especially given the fact that many otherwise observant Jews write wills without giving much thought to the halachic issues involved.
Rabbi Yelenik has offered his services to Jewish Will Power, and invites people with questions about the process of drafting wills to contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org by phone at 301-760-7676. He is making himself available for reviewing an existing will, and to answer questions, free of charge. Rabbi Yelenik will also be happy to assist rabbis or attorneys in drafting the correct halachik language for a will.
“I believe that Jewish WillPower has the potential to revolutionize both the nature of Jewish giving and will writing,” the rabbi enthuses. “Jewish Willpower has already made strides in publicizing the merit and importance of continuing to give at the time when a person takes leave of this world. [They] understand how important it is that the organizations and synagogues that will be the beneficiaries of this kindness receive money through a will which does not violate the laws of the Torah.” Jewish WillPower has received the endorsement of Maran Hacham Ovadia Yosef, shelita and Harav Aharon Leib Shteinman, shelita.
More Great Reasons to Will a Gift
- When we arrive at the real “Shabbat” – the next world – we will be asked to show how we “prepared for Shabbat” during our stay in this world. Our “preparations” – our Torah study, mitzvot and sedakah – will provide us with merit as we stand before the Heavenly Tribunal.
- It is said that even after death, the soul is judged each year on Rosh Hashanah for the consequences of the deeds the person performed in this world and their effect during the previous year. Imagine the yearly heavenly dividends that are earned by helping to found a yeshiva, or feeding hungry families!
- Your model of charitable giving will be forever etched in the minds of your children and grandchildren, showing them what you valued, and inspiring them to emulate your example.
- Those who are unable to have children can turn a yeshiva into their “child” through a charitable gift, and those without sons can have the merit of an entire yeshiva reciting Kaddishfor them, elevating their soul in the next world.
- The rabbis teach us that money used for a mitzvahprotects the money that is retained. And thus charity bequeathed to a charitable cause acts as a safeguard for the wealth that remains with the family, generating blessing and increasing their assets.
- After a parent passes on, there is no guarantee that his children will preserve his memory or spend their inheritance wisely. When a donor gifts money to Jewish charities, however, he can have a hand in directing how these funds will be spent, funds which will remain a tribute to his memory in perpetuity.
Allocate a gift to charity in your will today, or at least make a pledge card specifying exactly where you would like to leave a contribution. Carry the card in your wallet to serve as a reminder to you and your family of how you sought to make the world a better place.