My Week in Surfside
and the Prayers of Pinchas
Sponsored by Moshe Rubenstein in the merit of those missing and for an elevation of the souls taken from us in the Surfside tragedy
Parsha Halacha is underwritten by a grant from Dr. Stephen and Bella Brenner in loving memory of Stephen’s father, Shmuel Tzvi ben Pinchas, and Bella’s parents, Avraham ben Yitzchak and Leah bas HaRav Sholom Zev HaCohen
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This week has been a hard week for the Jewish (and wider) community of Surfside, Florida, and for the worldwide Jewish community. Following the shocking collapse of the Champlain Towers South, there have been several bodies recovered while most of the residents of the collapsed tower remain missing. Although the hope that there are survivors underneath the rubble become slimmer with each passing day, the search and rescue operations are continuing while people around the world pour their hearts in prayer, hoping for a miracle.
The amount of support this community has received is tremendous. Some of the organizations I have seen are
- Hatzalah (from Florida and Israel) – a volunteer ambulance corp. They have been here non-stop since the disaster.
- Chessed Shel Emmes (both from Florida and from New York)- volunteers who assist in burial and shiva arrangements. These dedicated people are there when people need them most.
- Yedidim – a local network of volunteers (mostly Israelis who reside in South Florida) who assist people as needed
- Cadena – volunteer therapists who specialize in disaster response
- The Jewish Family Services – a branch of the Local Jewish Federation
- The IDF Search and Rescue team as well as the trauma unit and the special forces.
Not to mention the Red Cross, the local and state police and fire departments, the many chaplains (of various faiths) who have been here non-stop and countless individuals, both local and those who came from afar, who have been assisting the victim’s families, the survivors, and other volunteers in an extraordinary fashion.
Just to give you an idea of what has been transpiring here, I will share with you some of the mitzvah activities the members of my community as well as my wife and I have seen or merited to be part of over these difficult days.
- Assisting in making burial arrangements
- Attending those burials and the shiva that followed
- Putting Tefillin on many of the volunteers
- Helping some of the survivors (i.e., those who were in the parts of the building that didn’t collapse and were able to escape) get new pairs of Tefillin (as they had no time to pack when they were evacuated).
- Staying in touch with some of the families of the missing and some that survived
- Starting a fund to assist the families and trying to figure out what kind of assistance they need at this time
- Helping the survivors find housing
- Helping some of the volunteers find places to stay
- Connecting family members of those missing with appropriate therapists
- Helping some of the survivors buy or receive appropriate clothing
- Making coffee for the volunteers
- Making food for some of the families
- Talking to a few reporters
In addition, we are all davening that, miraculously, some of those missing should be found alive.
It has been heartwarming to receive calls from family and friends around the world offering support and assistance. Every warm word of encouragement and appreciation goes a long way.
A Message from a Friend
Here is a message I got from a friend expressing his relative’s feelings about the support he received:
“As for community, this has shown me how much we are a family. As Jews from everywhere have come together in the past, the Jewish community in general has come out to support us even though we didn’t really participate much (until now). They have embraced us and kept us warm when the nights were cold. They literally fed us and lifted us when we were at our lowest. I’m more proud to be a Jew today than ever. Amazing that our … (relative) brought so many people together to show us how important it is and how lucky we are to be Jews.”
Here are some of the lessons I learned as the rabbi of a small shul near the collapsed building:
- If you are alive, even if all you have is the shirt on your back (or not even that) you should jump for joy.
- If you get a chance to help someone, grab the mitzvah opportunity right away. If you don’t, someone else may get it first.
- When seeking to help someone, always speak to them directly first so you can understand their needs. Otherwise you may be working to provide them with something entirely different from what they actually need or want.
- There is a lot to learn from the level of dedication of some of the people I have seen and gotten to know over this week or so. People who have traveled here (or have taken off from work) as volunteers to assist, feed, support and spend time with the families involved in this tragedy, whether they are friends, relatives, or even total strangers. These people are living lessons in dedication to family and community. In addition, the amount of time and energy given by the devoted members of the organizations mentioned above is both mind-boggling and inspiring.
In light of this ongoing situation, I would like to, once again, focus in this article on prayer, specifically on the prayer of Pinchas after whom this Parsha is named.
The Prayer of Pinchas
Before Pinchas killed Zimri and Kozbi (as described in the end of last week’s Torah portion [Numbers 25:7-9]), he prayed to Hashem asking that he be successful in this venture and that the plague should cease, as it says in Tehillim (106:30) וַיַּעֲמֹד פִּינְחָס וַיְפַלֵּל וַתֵּעָצַר הַמַּגֵּפָה. According to the Talmud (Berachot 6b) this means, “And Pinchas stood and prayed, and the plague stopped.”
The Meaning of וַיְפַלֵּל
Although the Talmud understands the word וַיְפַלֵּ֑ל to be referring to prayer (as in the similar word וַיִתפַּלֵל), many of the other commentaries interpret it differently.
- Deserving of Punishment
The Ibn Ezra says it means that he passed judgment (on Zimri and Kozbi) and punished them. The usage is similar to the verse in Job (31:28) which says עָוֹן פְּלִילִי, a sin worthy of punishment.
- Passed Judgment
Similarly, the Alshich HaKodesh says that it means that Pinchas passed judgment on (on Zimri and Kozbi) since he saw that Moshe was not acting. This usage is similar to the verse (Exodus 21:22) ונתן בפלילים which means it should be paid as per the judges.
A Standing Prayer
The Midrash (Tehillim 55:2) learns from this verse that one must say one’s prayer standing, as it says, “And Pinchas stood and he prayed.”
The Saving Grace
Another Midrash (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:5) contrasts the actions of Pinchas with those of the other Jews at that time. As the midrash says “‘I am dark’ (with sin) in Shittim as it says (Numbers 25:1), ‘And the Jews dwelt in Shittim,’ yet I am beautiful’ in Shittim as it says ‘And Pinchas stood and he prayed.’”
A Unique Prayer
Rabbi Yaakov Yehoshuah Rabinovich of Biala (Divrei Yehoshua on the verse) explains (based on Bamidbar Rabbah 21:1) that the prayer of Pinchas was unique. This is because he prayed both for G-d’s sake (that he successfully avert the grave desecration of G-d’s name) and for the Jewish people (that the plague stop). For this reason he was rewarded specifically in this world as are all those who bring benefit to their fellow-man.
Prayer at the vert time of Zealousness
Rabbi Moshe Wolfsohn points out that the verse in the Torah (Numbers 25:11) seems to indicate that the plague stopped in the merit of Pinchas killing Zimri (“Pinchas, son of Eleazar, son of Aaron, the kohen, has turned My anger away from the children of Israel by zealously avenging Me among them”) while the verse in the Psalms (quoted above) indicates that the plague stopped as a result of the prayers of Pinchas (And Pinchas stood and prayed and the plague stopped).
He explains that tribes who were bad-mouthing Pinchas (see Rashi on verse 11) acknowledged that he had stopped the plague. But they still criticized him as they said that the fact that he, of all the other righteous men of that generation, took it upon himself to kill Zimri and Kozbi is because he had a bloodthirsty and cruel nature. As such, he deserves no reward for his action since he was merely following his instinctive nature albeit for a mitzvah.
The verse in Tehillim refutes this argument by saying that Pinchas prayed. And the verse uses the word וַיְפַלֵּל instead of the usual term וַיִתפַלֵּל. This is because וַיִתפַלֵּל can mean that he prayed for himself, similar to the word וַיִתֽלַבֵּש which means he dressed himself, whereas the word וַיְפַלֵּל means that he prayed for others just as the word וַיַלַבֵּש means he dressed others.
Pinchas was praying that the plague, which was affecting the tribe of Shimon, be averted. At that time the members of the tribe of Simon were trying to kill Pinchas since he was attempting to kill their leader (as discussed in the Midrash). Yet at that same time Pinchas was praying that the plague which was killing them be averted. So he was praying for the health and life of his mortal enemies. This kind of prayer can only come from a person who is full of love for his fellow-Jews, a trait which he inherited from his grandfather Aharon HaKohen.
Thus the two verses complement each other. The plague was averted in the merit that Pinchas prayed that the plague stop while he was killing Zimri and Kozbi. This indicated that his actions were done for the sake of Heaven rather than for personal reasons.
He therefore received a great reward as befits someone who displays great selflessness. In fact, according to the Targum Yonatan, the reward for Pinchas was that he became Elijah, the prophet, who was transformed into an angel and lives forever. This reward is appropriate as one who is completely selfless is more like an angel than a human being,
May Hashem hear our prayers on behalf of those missing and for Klal Yisrael!
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom UMevorach!