Everyone who knew Gershon Burd knew he was "a nice guy." He would purposely sit by an entrance to his yeshiva study group so that he could smile at people as they walked in -- but they really had no idea the depths of his goodness until he died last year, on his 40th birthday, in an accident. Testimonies poured in to his wife of 10 years about how he made lives better -- including through the charity he had quietly established to give money away. By only spending the minimum on yourself, you may find that you have much more than you would ever need. This was his discovery, and it was how, on a modest income, he gave away so much to so many.
I was introduced to Burd from the new preface to Wendy Shalit's contemporary classic, "A Return to Modesty." Her book, first published 15 years ago, incited many a debate -- and even outrage -- all having to do with sex. So what does Burd, who paid school tuition for poor students and made sure that local children got balloons on their birthdays -- all anonymously -- have to do with it? About Burd, Shalit writes: "Really, is there anything more extraordinary than a life lived with such sublime modesty?"
She first wrote the book shortly after college, in no small part as a reaction to the hook-up culture on campus. Now she sees the bigger picture. Shalit writes: "Today, after being married for 10 years and becoming a mother of three, I have a different perspective on modesty. I now see modesty not just as a part of successful relationships, but as part of a large understanding of what makes a life successful. We can't control what we get in life, so long-term happiness depends largely on how much we train ourselves to get satisfaction from giving."
Modesty helps us see the big picture -- that our lives should be integrated wholes, lived in communion with others. It's about escaping the tyranny of an isolated something that seems increasingly difficult and outre with each passing year and technology upgrade.
Or we could talk about Jell-O. That's the BDSM "safe word" a Planned Parenthood worker shares with a minor trying to keep sex from being "boring," as seen in a video from Live Action, a group that uncovers what's going on inside abortion clinics in the United States.
"Man hungers for beauty," Dana Gioia, a poet who has served as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts said in a speech at the Napa Institute. "There is a void."
That void can be seen when the best advice an adult can think to give a child is a "safe word." Why would we ever encourage the young to settle for something so demeaning? It's not the whips in a culture where "50 Shades of Grey" is a "love story" that are the problem, but the chains of such low expectations.
We let ourselves fall victim to lame substitutes for love and happiness when, if we'd just move away from the screens, we might just discover the real thing. We become blind and deaf, dismissive of the simple beauty and sincere truth that is all around us. We become indifferent to the alternatives and angry at the challenges. We surrender our freedom, even as we talk about self-liberation.
In Shalit's book, she recounts a father confessing that he didn't want to interfere with his twin daughters' "budding sexuality" by stepping in when they were wearing inappropriate clothes, a mother refusing to get her daughter to brush her hair for fear of treading on the girls' dominion, and a teenager ending her life after explicit photos of her became public. These are all poison fruits of a culture that has lost sight of its greatest treasure: the human person and its inherent dignity and beauty.
Gershon Burd made a choice to sacrifice for others, including people he never met and didn't know. He knew he had something he could give that would better the lives of others in both small and dramatic ways. By doing so, he demonstrated the power of gratitude and generosity. He could have done otherwise, but there is something quite right about what he did. What his life proposes might be exactly what we most desire.
"(T)o me, the biggest virtue of modesty is the way it enables us to be our best selves in private," Shalit writes. Burd's life offers us a beautiful portrait of freedom, of stewardship of the gifts we have been given. Our modest imitation might just fill that void.