This column was originally published on Sept 27, 2016.
I dedicate this week’s essay review to the sacred memory of a dear friend, Rabbi Gershon Burd, of blessed memory, executive director of Yeshivas Bircas HaTorah in the Old City, who was killed in a swimming accident on his 40th birthday, three years ago. His story is the subject of “The Secret Life of Gershon Burd: A Master of Hidden Chesed” (Judaica Press, 2016) by Ya’akov Astor.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his commentary in the Koren Rosh Hashana Machzor, in the Musaf Amida section of “Zichronot: Remembrances,” teaches us that “Judaism is a religion of memory.
“The root zachor, remember, appears 169 times in the Bible,” writes Rabbi Sacks. “Jews were the first people to see G-d in history, and to consider memory as a religious obligation. …We fear that we will live and die and it will be as if we had never been. Faith answers that fear by assuring us that G-d does not forget. Nor do Jews. More than any other people we preserve our memories. We recall every place where Jews once lived. We perpetuate the memory of those we have lost by giving their names to our children. We are a people of memory for whom those who died live on.”
Rabbi Burd’s good friend, Rabbi Asher Baruch Wegbreit, Mashgiach Ruchani of Yeshivas Birchas HaTorah, observes that “Gershon embraces something so fundamental to our yeshiva’s raison d’etre that he embraced the desire to have a close relationship with his rabbis and colleagues. In a world that takes so much pride in being ‘your own man,’ the humility to open yourself up for critique, and to acknowledge that others may have greater insight and wisdom than you is one of the most heroic qualities of Gershon and is part of the yeshiva’s mesora that originated in the Slobodka pedagogic masorah.”
“When I think about our personal connection, what comes to mind so often is the warm smile we would share as one of the countless unique students who entered our yeshiva expressed their character trademark humor,” Rabbi Wegbreit continues. “We knew that we were sharing a voyage of lovely Jewish men of all ages and backgrounds coming alive as they were thrown into the waters of yeshiva learning even though they had just begun their spiritual journey at the age of 30, 40, 50.
“And then when the yeshiva shared its love of learning with the younger generation of post high school students from all over the world, Gershon and I were trading smiles as these lively youngsters kept us alive with their antics. We knew we had to call forth our younger side and kid around with them while still trying to evolve them spiritually as a result of our having sailed on the voyage longer than them.
“I’ll close by relating the way in which Gershon played a role in my daily prayers. Once I shared with him that I really wanted to fulfill Chazal’s injunction to make ‘Mizmor L’ Todah’ have a niggun, a melodic and musical component. I was searching for a niggun that would fit. I even asked a popular Jewish musician or two. But, it was for Gershon who was to find a tune for me. He sang it for me till it entered my kishkes, and now it comes up almost every day at prayer. Thus, with a tear of fondness do I recall Gershon.”
Now consider this from Yaakov Astor’s biography of Gershon:
“Gershon’s commitment to self-improvement was so all-consuming and absolute that he was literally thinking about it until the very end. In his eulogy of Gershon, Rabbi Wegbreit read an email that Gershon had written to him not an hour before he drowned, in which he expressed his eagerness for the new ‘mussar vaad,’ a character refinement group that was starting soon.”
The email read:
“Personally, I feel that I have greatly benefitted as the result of a recent emphasis of Hashem watching us, calculating the roots of sins. I was wondering if it might be suitable for me to now emphasize stopping issues correcting issues. For example, I feel that Rabbeinu Yonah’s advice of going to the opposite extreme is very fitting. I need to personally focus, for example not on coming on time to shiur, but on coming a couple of minutes early. I need to do more than stopping to focus on being less critical, but instead be much more positive to an extreme. … But seeing that we can break habits … seemingly we are capable.”
We should read and parse these heartfelt teachings that, in reality, are basic guideposts to doing teshuva. Thus is the legacy of the life of Rabbi Gershon Burd. His untimely passing, and the manner in which it occurred, hit me hard. Reading the book about him only further heightened my personal regard for the man and his all too short stay with us. May his memory be blessing to all.