Love without Conditions
Grappling with the death of my husband.
Many of you know my story (you can read it here). I'd like to tell the story that wasn't reported, the tale of my inner horizon.
First, a short recap. In October, my husband Gershon and I went away for Shabbos to celebrate his fortieth birthday. We booked a hotel room with an incredible sea view, and we arrived to find a cake waiting and champagne on ice. Forty is a big milestone, and we were doing a life review together. I’ve never, ever seen Gershon so happy, so fulfilled, and so proud of himself. I said to him, “You know, you’re forty. You just finished a life. Forty is a life. It’s a beginning and an end of something…and this is it! You just finished a life.” He gave me this incredible smile and agreed.
We decided to go down to the beach, and headed to an isolated spot. I sat on the sand, and Gershon dived into the waves. Twenty minutes later, he was pulled out of the sea, lifeless and without a heartbeat.
When an author writes a book, he uses foreshadowing. So, as much as I walk the pages of my life now, I see the foreshadowing of God – the Author of my life – introducing me to the next pages as I go along.
When I saw my husband like that, a lot went through my mind. I felt how much my life was going to be shaken. I felt how much Bircas HaTorah, the yeshivah where my husband learned and worked, was going to be shaken. I knew that losing Gershon would tear holes in a thousand places, but above all, my experience was intensely personal. And then I came to the funeral and sat shiva. That's when I saw that what happened didn't affect me alone; it was bigger than me becoming a widow and my five children being orphaned – although that's hard enough to comprehend. Gershon did so much chesed, supported so many needy people, without anyone knowing about it. Together, we set up Westernwallprayers.org – an organization that sends Torah scholars to the Kotel to pray for those in need. Gershon's passing was Klal Yisrael’s tragedy, something earthshaking for all of us. That shocked me. I had no idea how big this was going to be.
Through the shiva and in the weeks afterward, I was struck by the way people interpreted and processed the tragedy. Let me explain. Many people die and there’s usually a cause, a reason. That cause might be disease, war, something. I think there is a part of us that is only comfortable with mortality if we can point to what caused the death: It’s the Arab suicide bomber. It was his diet. She was doing something dangerous. She was on the wrong side of town. And then we pray: God, help us! Save us from war. Save us from intifada. Save us from disease.
It’s clear that God took him, and that makes people very uncomfortable.
It’s extremely uncomfortable – extremely uncomfortable – to look this tragedy in the face with the knowledge that Gershon was a former lifeguard, who was completely healthy, completely alert, completely fine, swimming in waves that he could totally handle. And one little rock from a wave knocked him out.
The only reason for his death was that it was the will of God. Save us from You, God.
It’s clear that God took him, and that makes people very uncomfortable. I’m uncomfortable writing it. I love God. Still, people assume that if you go through a tragedy – loss of a loved one, a divorce – it's going to affect your approach to Judaism and living a Jewish life. If you don't abandon Jewish observance, then you'll slip, even just a little bit. That you'll say, “This is what you gave me, God? Here I am doing everything for You. And look at the troubles I’m having in my life. Why should I do this? Why am I making so much effort? It’s so much easier to relax, be merry. What’s this all for, anyway? You abandoned me. I’ll abandon You.”
To address this, let's go back to basics. Why do I live a Torah life – and why should tragedy not affect my commitment to Judaism? Why do I keep mitzvot? Is it because Shabbos is nice? Because I enjoy being part of community? To feel good through giving?
For me, the answer is that this world we live in is sometimes fun and exciting. Sometimes it’s sad and surreal. Sometimes it’s warm and wonderful. Always, though, it's a stage, in both senses of the world. It’s a stage in the sense of time – a time-period that will pass. And it’s a stage in terms of drama – a platform for a scene. And in this performance, I’m not just wearing clothes; I’m wearing a body for a certain length of time. Then I will leave this body behind and be what I am.
Batya with her kids on Purim
What am I? I am a potentially eternal being, who has been brought here to learn from this place. I, like all of you, and everyone else, have something to accomplish here. I, like all of you, am broken in some way and so not yet able to be part of the Infinite Light of God. And I need this world to enable me to return home in a state wherein I can fuse with the Light of God. I need these opportunities; sometimes, I need the suffering. When I allow myself to learn what I’m here to learn, to experience what I'm put here to experience – without pushing away the pain – the result is spiritual transformation.
There are times when God puts on your plate the jackpot – but you have to be wearing the right glasses.
Will Gershon's passing affect my Judaism? Fundamental to Judaism is the spiritual reality that we are all souls here to be fixed, and whatever happens to us, we need to use those events to come closer. So yes, it will affect my Judaism. In fact, when something this big happens, it's even more potent because with one trial we get the Heavenly assistance to make great leaps. There are certain times in your life when you make ‘a little money’ spiritually speaking – you do a little kindness, for example – and there are certain times when God puts on your plate the jackpot. It doesn’t look like a jackpot. You have to be wearing certain glasses. But when you see the true goal of what we’re doing here, you understand that this is where the big money lies.
I can’t tell you why Gershon was taken, nor can anyone tell me. But I do know something about God’s Providence and world, enough to give you a potential scenario to quench the why and the how. The first answer is a pretty obvious one. “God uses tzadikkim (the righteous) to atone for the generation.” The second answer is a little more intricate and a little more interesting. Again, I don’t know why, and I don’t know if this true.
What if I had been a religious girl in the Holocaust in a previous lifetime, and had seen someone very dear to me die in front of me. And my reaction was that I could not understand how a good and loving and caring God could allow that to happen. What if I abandoned Jewish practice as a result and spoke out very strongly to people around me that there must be no God, that He must have abandoned us, and I brought others down with me.
What if I eventually died and in “the World of Truth,” where the soul goes after death, I realized that I had failed to learn the lessons of my life and had caused a lot of spiritual damage to others in the process. What if I recognized my mistake and asked to rectify it and God decided to give me another opportunity to get it right this time and fix what I had spoiled.
And what if I was born again into this world, this time into a non-religious family and found my way to the Torah path and lived a good life. And, again, God had someone very dear to me die in front of me, but this time I would be given ample opportunity to stay strong in my faith, and I would be given a platform to strengthen other people to stay strong, and in that way not only would I rectify what I had done before, but I would go even higher.
What a good, loving, caring, compassionate God, to allow me the opportunity to rectify and perfect myself and the world around me.
I don't know whether or not this is true, but it is a possible way for God’s providence to work.
The Prime of His Life
Now there’s the question of Gershon, zt”l. Forty years. The prime of his life. Happy, healthy, accomplished, five little kids under the age of ten. Someone said to me, “Why didn’t God take me, not him?” I don’t think his death was a punishment. Let’s say some big tzadik was in Heaven after 80 years and said, “God, I did everything You asked me for. Why didn’t I get 120 years like Moses?”
“Okay,” God replies. “You'll get forty more years. Go back down to earth and get as many mitzvot as you can. Get a higher place up here...”
Gershon worked liked crazy. He worked like crazy at what this place is really about. People always talk about saving for retirement. Gershon saved feverishly for retirement. Feverishly. And now he is retired, living the dream in Gan Eden, the Next World. He invested right in this world – using his time optimally doing mitzvot and untold acts of kindness. And he’s beautiful. He’s shining. He’s happy. He’s there. We wish we could get there like him.
Right now, it's my job to stay down here and keep working. Feeling pain – tremendous pain – is different than abandonment. When Yosef was riding down to Egypt where he would spent 12 years in jail – dark, alone, potentially feeling pretty abandoned – the Torah says, “Behold! A caravan was coming from Gilead and in it had spices: balsam and lotus.” The camels usually carried foul-smelling fuels, but this caravan was transporting beautiful smelling spices. There was a reason for this.
The sweet fragrance was a Divine wink, a flare in the night that said, “Listen, I’m with you. I’m going down with you. I know you’re there. Remember Me. Remember that I’m with you still. You’re not alone.”
My own caravan, travelling through my darkness, has been perfumed with the most incredible-smelling spices. I have so many people to thank on so many different levels, I can’t even begin. I have been given so much love.
My Hospital Epiphany
I’m going to tell you a very personal story. Some of you know that all this took place on an erev Shabbos, with too little time for anybody to get to the Tel Aviv hospital room to meet me. So I spent Shabbos, still in my modest beachwear, without anyone except the weekend nurse staff and my (late) husband. I knew it was really bad. In fact, I was shocked that I was in the hospital in the first place. But I thought – he must have made it to the hospital for a reason. There must be a ray of hope. This must be for something.
A few years back, my father had a very bad stroke. It was several days until he got help, and by then he was comatose. After three weeks, the doctors told us he was a vegetable. Along with my sister, I flew down to be with him and to nurse him back to health. For six weeks, I left my family and devoted my life and soul to my father. I was using every ounce of intelligence, healing power, prayer power, resource power, anything I could muster to ignite some brain activity, to inspire a will to live so that he would fight to come back. Thank God, he’s actually a person now.
As I sat by my husband’s bedside that Shabbos, the situation looked all too familiar. I think it was 8 o’clock Shabbos morning; I hadn’t slept one second. I had begged. I had cried. I had given forgiveness. I had asked for forgiveness. I had spoken everything possible out that I could ever want in my life. To Gershon. To God.
I was exhausted, mentally, spiritually, physically. I was so exhausted. I knew Gershon was so, so far… so much farther than my father had been when we were told he was a vegetable. And then, I had completely ignored the doctors and gone ahead with healing initiatives anyway. But now, I had two more children, I was older and more tired – and now I didn’t have a husband to help me with the kids while I helped him. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know if I had the strength to fight for him. I didn’t know what it was going to take; I just knew it was going to take a lot. And I didn’t know what kind of husband I was going to get in the end – after the damage to his body and mind. I just knew I wasn’t going to get much. I was so tired.
At moments like this your life flashes before your eyes. I remembered that before I was Batya Burd I was a girl named Lisa Fefer, who had a very different life. But when I became Batya Burd, I said, “Ahh…I have arrived. This is where I am, and this is where I’m going.”
What I experienced in the hospital room lifted marriage to another realm.
In that moment, I looked up at God and I said, “God, I’ve been Lisa Fefer and then I was Batya Burd. You can take me to where I’m going next…” And I got up, and I took a step to walk away.
Then this incredible, incredible surge of energy washed over me. I ran back to the bed and said, “No! I want to be Batya Burd! I don’t care what it takes. I just want you to be there next to me. I’ll do whatever it takes. I’m Batya Burd.”
I pictured Gershon next to me at the Shabbos table. I saw him in a wheelchair, drooling, as I proudly said Kiddush and talked to the kids about what Abba says, and what Abba would do. And I was so happy. I got this incredible gift from Above – the gift of unconditional love for my spouse. All I wanted was the presence of his soul, for him just to be there. That was all I needed to make me happy.
This shocked me.
Does anyone have unconditional love for their spouse? For anyone, other than maybe a child? Does anyone even think that’s a life goal: to meet someone and love them unconditionally? For me, it wasn’t on the radar. I had approached marriage with the questions: What are your needs? What are my needs? How can we fit each other into the picture here? Let’s make some compromises.
What I experienced in the hospital room lifted marriage to another realm. It was an otherworldly sensation. It was Godly. I hate that it was only accessible in such a moment…but it was accessible, and it wasn't just a fleeting emotion. It was an acquisition, gifted to me from Above. It is the ability to give total unconditional love, and it was the greatest gift God could have given me at that moment.
When my husband did leave, I had to go through a process. I’m still in that process. But this gift of unconditional love is now meant to be channeled toward – straight toward – the Almighty. All these feelings that I have developed, all this devotion, all this love …is to be package-wrapped and gifted to my Creator. Because that’s what it’s there for.
God is always constant. Rabbi Leib Kelemen says, “Closeness in the physical world is measured by proximity; closeness in the spiritual world is measured by similarity.” God says, “You want to be close to me? Be like Me. You’ll resonate with Me. You’ll feel Me.” Wouldn't it be incredible if I would be happy to do anything – anything – just so G-d would be close to me? God’s Presence with me would be enough to give me life? That Shabbos in the hospital, I touched that feeling. I felt it for my husband: I don’t care what I have to do. I don’t care how many years I have to dedicate to rehab, or how helpless you are, just be here with me.
That's a whole new spiritual vista: I don’t care what job you give me God. I just want to be close to You. That’s all I need. That doesn’t come from God; that comes from us, from a choice that we make.
It’s complicated, suffering. Because there are two parts to us: the soul, which knows and understands that everything is for the good, and knows and understands how much love God shows for us, and knows and understands that it is all meant to be. But then there is the body – and that just has so many feelings that don’t work within the picture. Feelings like Frustration. Loss. Pain. Anger. Entitlement. Self-pity. Laziness. They are all real. They all have to be addressed. Because it’s our reality. We’re not robots who function just on intellectual convictions, and we’re not bodies that only function according to how we feel. We are both.
The real “we” is the puppet-master between the two. The one that can see, “Yeah, this is my body going through a process. I need to respect that process and go through it. I need to let it out in a healthy way, but I need not let it guide me. I need to give expression to my feelings of mourning and loss without allowing them to determine my level of observance. And meanwhile, I wait for the darkness to pass, and the light at the end of the tunnel to glimmer. Even when I’m feeling angry and I’m feeling pain and frustration, it’s okay. None of it means that I am going to abandon.
It means I’m going to let it be and get the help that I need. I’m going to go through the pain and the emotion, and I’m going to allow it to bring me to the next stop on my journey.
I don't know how long that road is going to be for, and I don’t think it even really matters because it’s so clear that it’s my road. And it’s so clear that it’s from God. As Gershon always said, “Absolutely nothing is relevant except for the mitzvah in front of you, and what the right thing is to do now.”
And for me, the right thing now is to strive to live up to his words.
Adapted from a speech Batya Burd gave at a communal gathering in Jerusalem.