Check it out, over on the Jewish Book Review page.
Usually, I try to avoid ‘holy person’ biographies, for the simple fact that they often describe individuals in terms that I just can’t relate to. Like they never got angry, or never got stressed, or were always happy, cheerful and full of over-brimming belief in Hashem.
That concern flashed through my mind when I picked up a copy of ‘The Secret Life of Gershon Burd’, but I ignored it and bought it anyway. The truth is, that it does describe Gershon Burd in superlative terms. But the deeper truth is that strangely, that doesn’t take away from the person being written about, nor the power of the message that his family was trying to convey by arranging for the book to be written.
Gershon Burd died on his 40th birthday, when he was knocked unconscious in a freak accident while he was swimming in the sea as his distraught wife, Batya, looked on. During the shiva, all of these incredible stories started to emerge about the ‘secret’ kindnesses that Gershon had been doing for people literally all over the world, and usually in a way that the recipient of his kindness never knew that it was him.
That part of the story was amazing enough, and certainly testified to Gershon’s strong faith in God, and strong desire to help others, even when it was difficult or uncomfortable.
But it’s not what made the biggest impact on me.
What made the biggest impact on me was the fact that Gershon didn’t waste a moment of his time, and packed his day so full of meaningful activities, kindnesses and Torah that he only slept 2-3 hours most nights. Gershon was a planner, and he planned his goals and his activities, and researched them meticulously, and used iron self-discipline to try to do whatever was required to achieve them.
And that’s what really spoke to me, because the last couple of years I kind of lost that ability to plan, or to move forward in such a strong-willed way, and while I’m still getting a lot done, it’s really adhoc and spontaneous. I know I could probably be achieving much more, if I could somehow kick-start my motivation, and my ability to believe that everything I’m doing has the potential to change the world for the better.
I used to believe that a lot, and it WAS a very powerful motivating force in my life. But then I went through a patch where it felt like everything I was trying to do, both materially and spiritually, either failed or exploded in my face, and by the end of that completely hellish 2-3 years, I lost my belief in being able to making things - anything - happen.
On the one hand, it taught me a heck of lot of humility. On the other, I kind of gave up on myself, and retired from the human race a little.
But as I read about Gershon, and about how he used every minute for God, something inside started to fire up again. I don’t know where it’s going to lead to, but I regained the clarity after reading that book that life is precious, that small things do make a big difference, and that it’s still in my purview to do kindnesses for others, even if they’re not ‘big’.
One small example: One of the small local kids was wailing outside my house for his mother. Usually, I'd just try to ignore the crying and / or feel a little irritated about the disturbance. But this time round, I found the kid a lollipop, and went to give it to him. The crying stopped, and he went back to happily playing with his siblings.
In the big scheme of things, it was really nothing. In the small scheme of things, I realized that filling my life with that sort of ‘nothing’ kindness could actually transform it. It was a stunning revelation.
So, even though this book does paint a picture of an almost super-human person, and a very holy individual, it’s still a great book to read, because the message I took away from it is not that I have to do kindnesses on the scale that Gershon did kindnesses. Very few people could manage that, and I’m certainly not one of them.
BUT I can certainly serve Hashem more, to the best of my abilities, as me, and stop wasting time on inconsequential things that don’t matter. And I can also start dreaming big again, and see if God will help me to make those dreams come true. And, I can take a few seconds out to give a strange kid a lollipop, or a stranger grown up a friendly smile, or to walk over to my teenager and give them a hug. And while those things maybe won’t change the world, they’ll certainly change my world.
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