Surfside Tragedy: What Now?

By Rabbi Moishe Kievman - Chabad Chayil

July 1, 2021

Above: Rabbi Noach Bernstein and Chabad Chayil volunteers Motty Sternberg & Sholom Brashavitzsky together with Rescue Workers in Surfside

The horror that unfolded early Thursday morning when a large portion of the beachside condominium building in Surfside suddenly collapsed is unfathomable.

On Thursday, when Wolf Blitzer from CNN asked Chabad’s Rabbi Sholom Ber Lipskar, who's the spiritual leader of The Shul of Bal Harbor & Surfside, on live television: “As a man of faith, how do you try to understand and explain something as horrific as this?”

“You can’t explain it, so let’s start from there,” Rabbi Lipskar answered. “There is no rationality for it…”

He described the shocking situation as a surreal space with hundreds of people waiting for “the ultimate judgement” of life and death of their loved ones. “There is hope in the air, but it’s a strange kind of feeling.”

This past Shabbat, we had the honor of hosting a couple that was in the part of the building that did not fall, at the time of the tragedy. They benched gomel, which is a special blessing made when surviving a catastrophic danger. At the Kiddush lunch following services, they elaborated on their experience and of those dreadful 40 minutes it took them to escape to safety, in the darkness of night, not even knowing what they were running from.

While hundreds of rescue workers and local volunteers work around the clock to save lives and support the survivors and relatives, there is just confusion and sadness for the rest of us. Is there a way we can process this so that we are not paralyzed by fear of the unknown?

The Torah portion of the week the tragedy took place, records the story of how two evil anti-Semites sought to destroy the Jewish people. Balak king of Moav hired a prophet named Bilaam to annihilate the Jews with a curse. Bilaam’s curses had destroyed mighty nations before and he was delighted to focus his deadly power on the people he hated most.

This was the only time the Jews were in mortal danger without knowing it. All other enemies confronted us directly and we dealt with them either through negotiations, battle or by praying for a miracle. But this time the Jews were oblivious to the pro-blem and unaware of the great miracles that saved them.

This story teaches us that there's alot going on behind the scenes that we don’t know about; way more than we can control and manipulate on our own. Trusting in G-d - known in Hebrew as bitachon - means realizing that even when we feel safe, secure and in control, it is G-d who is truly running the show. As we must always do our very best naturally, we must always know that our success is ultimately in G-d’s hands.

In person and on national television, Rabbi Sholom Ber Lipskar has echoed the words of The Rebbe, who rejected any and all explanations for tragedy. In the aftermath of a 1956 terror attack in Israel, the Rebbe insisted that while “we should not allow ourselves to” sink into depression or helplessness, there were no words, spiritual or otherwise, that can give reason to the loss.

“There are few words that could give anybody consolation because you are dealing with an unimaginable, horrific tragedy that struck in the middle of the night,” said Rabbi Lipskar. He added that “we live with consistent and constant hope … but at the same time, we have to get used to the fact that the soul has eternal existence.”

As we grieve for the loss of so many and hope and pray for many miracles to come, don’t be paralyzed by fear of the unknown because G-d is with us every step of the way - even if it feels irrational.

The Rebbe emphasized that each of us have immense G‑dly potential to change the world, and when we are met with darkness and destruction we need to remember that we each have it within ourselves to be an agent for positive change. In this moment of darkness, we must all seek to bring more G‑dly light into a world that desperately needs it. Let’s not underestimate the power of a Mitzvah. Each of us being more kind to one another. Jewish women should light Shabbat candles on Friday before sundown. Jewish Men should put on Tefillin. Be sure to have a kosher Mezuzah on your doorpost and have a dedicated charity box in your home for daily giving. If you are not sure if your Mezuzah is Kosher, please contact us, so we have a Sofer - Certified Scribe, inspect it to make sure it is still okay. And there are so many other Mitzvahs one can do (see Chabad https://www.chabadchayil.org/mitzvah for ideas).

The good deeds we do consistently help us nurture a stronger trust in G-d so we can confidently move forward bringing more hope, light and joy to our world, preparing it for the era of Moshiach when peace and tranquility will reign for all.

Please continue praying for those still trapped, as well as their family and friends. The complete list of names is available at https://jewishflorida.news

May G-d bless the rescue workers and their families. Those who put their life on the line every day, for people they don’t even know. I would like to especially thank the volunteer members of Hatzalah and other groups that flew in from Israel and so many other places, just to help fellow human beings. There are also so many local people who are not professional helpers, but came together to bring clothing and other essentials to survivors and family members waiting for news on their loved ones. It’s heartwarming to see so many people that gave money and time and whatever they can to help! May you never know of any such challenges. And may G-d bless each and every one of you with good health, happiness, nachas, prosperity and only good things. May you always be on the giving end.

About the author:
Rabbi Kievman together with his wife are the ambassadors of The Rebbe to Highland Lakes, FL. They are the founders of CHAP - an afterschool program for Jewish children in Public Schools and direct Chabad Chayil. He’s the rabbi at The Family Shul and can be reached at (305) 770-1919 or rabbi@ChabadChayil.org.