Do you remember when you were a kid and got sick and your family doctor came to your home? This helped forge a very close relationship between your family and its doctor. I still remember Dr. Max Kaplan from my childhood and think of him from time to time with reverence, awe and a smile. Who makes house calls anymore? I’ll tell you who. While doctors don’t make house calls these days, Gd still does! That’s a crucial lesson from today’s Torah portion.
While the Torah doesn't specifically mention the mitzvah of Bikur Cholim, “visiting the sick,” it does teach it to us by example. If you read the end of last week’s Torah reading you’ll see that today’s parsha begins as Abraham was recovering from his circumcision. It begins: Vayeyra eylav Hashem, “Gd appeared to him.” What a dramatic statement this is! Everywhere else Gd speaks to Abraham, He calls on him, but He never “appears” to him. Why then, did Gd choose to appear to Abraham at this particular moment in time?
Also, if you look carefully at the text you will see that something is missing. What does Gd say to Abraham? It appears from the text that Gd doesn’t say anything—He’s just there! Perhaps that’s the message! Perhaps Gd was modeling for us the mitzvah of bikur cholim, that when you know someone is ill you should go visit them and it’s not so important what you say to them, only that you “appear”—that you show up to comfort them. This is in fulfillment of the fundamental Torah principle, Ma Hu Af Ata, “as Gd does, so should we”—or as the philosophers call it, Imatateo Dei, “imitating the Divine.”
But something else seems to be missing in this story, notes Rabbi Mark Geenspan. He writes: Isn’t it strange that despite the fact that Gd visits our forefather Abraham, the Torah says nothing about God curing him or lessening his pain?...one would have expected nothing less than a miracle from the Rofey Kol Basar, “the Healer of all Flesh,” as our tradition calls Gd. So what’s the point of Gd’s house call, if not to heal Abraham?
Rabbi Greenspan answers: Jewish tradition teaches us that the purpose of bikur cholim is to provide the patient with the healing that precedes the cure. Nature will follow its own course. Medicine and therapy can help. We must allow doctors and nurses to do their job. But a visitor brings something equally important to the infirm. A visitor brings the healing power of love. She has the ability to bring caring and empathy into the sick room. Like Gd, the visitor reminds the patient that he is created in the image of Gd. The visitor also reaffirms the humanity of the patient at a time when the patient may feel more like a statistic or a diagnosis than a human being.
In discussing the power of visiting the sick, the Talmud tells us that one who visits those who are ill, takes away 1/60th of their illness. Taking away a percentage means you can alleviate the discomfort and bring some relief to the patient but you can’t cure him. Our sages saw the power of being a caring visitor but they also knew its limitations.
Anyone who has ever been ill can testify to the healing power of a visitor. Of course too many visitors can be taxing just as visitors who overstay their welcome can become a burden. For the most part caring visitors make a difference in our recovery. Let me illustrate with my story:
It is said that doctors are terrible patients. I’ll tell you a secret—Rabbis are worse. We think, that because we work for the Ribono shel Olam, the Master of the Universe, we deserve special consideration. We spend so much time preaching, teaching, dealing with lofty matters that we forget that we have the same needs, both physical and spiritual, as other people. We have no more control over the world than anyone else!
A few years ago I learned this lesson the hard way when I came down with a severe case of diverticulitis. I rarely become ill. In the 25 plus years that I have been in Atlanta, I have never before missed a Shabbos that was not planned. So you can understand how shocked I was when, after visiting my physician on a Friday afternoon for abdominal pains, he put me in a wheelchair and had his nurse wheel me to St. Joseph’s Hospital Emergency Room that’s connected to the doctor’s building by an underground corridor.
As I was waiting between tests, I got on my cell phone to make calls to insure the Friday night minyan. I was pretty successful because who could say no to their rabbi calling from the emergency room of a hospital? I later realized I made a serious mistake. I should have asked for money!
When they wheeled me in for a CT scan, the technician asked me, “Do you hurt on the left side of the abdomen or the right?” It reminded me of Jackie Mason’s line when a traffic judge asked him, “Guilty or not guilty?” Mason said to himself, “He doesn’t know; why should I tell him?” 10 hours later I was admitted to the hospital. I had a severe diverticulitis attack and had to stay in the hospital till Monday afternoon.
I was indignant. Monday afternoon? I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding! Who has the time to be sick? I have things to do and classes to teach, sermons to write. I’m the Rabbi—I’m not supposed to get sick. Rabbis are supposed to take care of everyone else!” The doctor looked me straight in the eye and said, “Rabbi, no one is indispensable. The world will just have to manage without you.”
And it did. Much to my distress the shule was just fine without me. But this illness made me aware of something I should have known. As a regular visitor to those who are hospitalized and home-bound I should have known just how powerful a visit or a prayer or a kind wish can be. The few minutes taken out of a busy day to visit someone who is sick, to call them on the phone, or to write them a note can be better than medicine. The fact that someone was making a Mi Shebeyrach for me in shule was really comforting.
Did these visits and prayers cure me? Not necessarily. But they did take away some of the discomfort and angst that went along with being ill, and there was some spiritual healing as well. It made me feel stronger to know that someone cared. The children who drew pictures for me took my mind off my own discomfort and transported me beyond myself. The brief phone call from friends to check up on me reminded me that I wasn’t forgotten.
Bikur cholim is a mitzvah everyone can perform. What a privilege it is to know that we have the power to bring comfort and healing to someone who is sick or suffering. “He who visits the sick causes him to live,” the Talmud (Nedarim 40a) tells us. The isolation and depression which accompany an illness, even a minor one like diverticulitis, can feel like a spiritual death. We ought to remember that the call we make is not a social call, but a mitzvah call. The patient should not feel he has to impress his visitor and the visitor should come with the realization that he’s there to serve the needs of the patient—not to be entertained.
The Talmud (Berachot 5b) tells us that when Rabbi Yochanan fell ill, Rabbi Chanina came to visit him asking: “Are your afflictions dear to you?” Implicit in the question is the notion that these were afflictions of love where a person suffers in this world and not the next.
Rabbi Yochanan replied: “Neither they nor their reward.” In other words, “You can keep the suffering and its reward, just heal me.” Rabbi Chanina immediately put his hands on Rabbi Yochanan and healed him.
Now Rabbi Yochanan was a renowned healer himself and the Talmud asks why he couldn’t heal himself? It answers: “A prisoner cannot free himself from jail”—i.e. no matter how capable a person may be, there are certain things he cannot accomplish on his own. We need one another. We cannot heal ourselves. It takes the love that only another person can offer.
My friends, if I can leave you with one message today, it is that bikur cholim is not a Rabbi’s Mitzvah. Of course people want their Rabbi to visit them when they’re not feeling well. But we all have a measure of healing we can offer one another and it can only come from another human being. Only when we are really vulnerable enough to let people into our lives do we realize what a blessing it is to receive another person’s love! May we do our part to bring healing to each other and may Gd heal all those in Israel who are ill. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis