We are Surfside, Florida

(RNS) — Do you believe in angels?

Because if you do, congratulations.

According to an AP poll from two years ago, you are quite in sync with contemporary society. That poll reveals that, overall, about 80% of Americans believe in the existence of angels.

The belief in angels is strongest among the following groups: Protestants, women, Southerners, Midwesterners and Republicans.

So, if you are a member of any or some of those groups, there is a fighting chance that you believe in winged beings, and/or that play the harp, and/or that wear halos.

Or, at the very least, you might believe that there are beings in this world, visible or invisible, that are manifestations of Godliness.

You will say that you do not believe in angels. I will respond that you need not believe in angels.

But, even if you are Jewish, and you do not believe in angels, and if you go to synagogue or have Shabbat at your table, you sing to them. Shalom Aleichem, malachei ha-shareit — with those words we welcome the invisible incarnations of the Divine Presence that enters our spaces, physical and spiritual, on Shabbat.

Not only that: There is a book on my shelf in the office — A Dictionary of Angels — that I inherited from my late uncle, Harry — which contains the names of — are you ready? — more than 3,400 angels in Jewish, Christian, Muslim, mystical and literary lore.

Let us remember as well — that an angel has a starring role in this week’s Torah portion. The king of Moab has hired the pagan prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites. Balaam rides a donkey to that mission. But, the donkey has a peculiar habit of seeing an angel that wants to deter Balaam from his task.

The donkey can see the angel, but Balaam cannot — or will not.

The first words that Jews say when they enter a synagogue for morning prayer have a starring role in this week’s Torah portion. “How good are your tents, O Jacob; your dwelling places, O Israel.

Those are words that a pagan prophet, Balaam, said to the Israelites. He wanted to curse us, but it did not come out that way. Instead, his words emerged as blessings.

What did he see? Tents. Flimsy shelters. Temporary shelters. He blessed us — even because and especially because he could sense that our shelters were shaky.

Let us go, now, from Torah to life itself — to what happened just the other morning in Surfside, with the collapse of Champlain Towers South — with four deaths and 159 people unaccounted for.

Until last July, I lived in Aventura, Florida. From the balcony of my condo, I could look across the Intracoastal, and out of the corner of my eye, I could see Surfside. I know that community well. I first moved to Miami in 1981, exactly forty years ago next month, in the same year that Champlain Towers was built. In those days, it was already a heavily Jewish area, with many Canadian Jews having second homes there, and with the novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer as a full-time resident.

So, yes — what happened was a Jewish tragedy — in so far that it has affected so many Jews.

There was a time when we would have rejected the idea of this being a Jewish tragedy. That would have seemed too ethnocentric, too particularistic, too smothering.

In Philip Roth’s short story, “The Conversion of the Jews,”  the main character, Ozzie, a young Jewish boy, finds a particular habit of his mother’s to be frustrating and obnoxious. If there was a plane crash, and if they published the names of the dead — his mother’s eye would uniquely and specifically look for the Jewish names — as if the number of Jews alone made this a tragedy.

I grew up that way. When a horrible thing happened, we looked for Jewish names. When people did horrible things, we looked for Jewish names. When there were lists of Nobel Prize winners, we looked for Jewish names.

That search for Jewish names was an essential feature of our American Judaism. It was the religion of Jewish connection. It was about being a people — about being a family.

How interesting, how sweet, and how telling — that any number of my gentile friends have reached out to me over the last two days, expressing sympathy to me. To me — as a Jew and as a rabbi.

They did not reach out to me because they imagine that I and the missing residents sing the same prayers, or study the same Torah, or observe the same rituals.

They reached out to me because they know that we are the same people.

I believe in angels.

No — not the winged, haloed, robed, harp-playing variety.

I believe in the idea that angels are manifestations of God in our midst.

To be more specific: I believe that angels are the manifestations of God’s quality of chesed, of loving kindness and of selflessness.

I believe that angels have descended upon Surfside.

  • Angels that have come in the form of first responders, and helpers, and those who have given money and clothing and aid and comfort.
  • Angels that have come in the form of my colleagues, some of whom have congregants who are as yet unaccounted for.
  • Angels that have come in the form of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, that has jumped onto this with its usual action of compassion. https://jewishmiami.org/gift/surfsidebuildingcollapse/
  • Angels that have come in the form of the state of Israel — which has responded the way that it typically does to disasters around the world — with offers for help and, in particular, trained canines that can help located those who are now presently lost.

Back to the story of Balaam, his donkey, and the angel.

What was Balaam’s problem?

He could not see the angel. He could not see that manifestation of the Divine Presence.

But, his donkey could.

I now invite you to become a donkey — to see the Divine Manifestation in ordinary people — acting in extra-ordinary ways.

Right now, there are many people praying for miracles. They want to see their parents, children, friends again. They want hope to emerge from the rubble.

In this, I paraphrase the words of the medieval philosopher Nachmanides:

We understand that huge, large scale miracles can happen. We should also understand that small miracles can happen as well — and that the small miracles are the foundation of the entire Torah.

Join me in praying for miracles.

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