Recently, I sat with someone who had just come out of a bout with serious illness. After the weeks and months of hospitalization, bed rest, medical therapy, my companion said to me: "Rabbi, all my life, I have been hesitant to visit people in the hospital or in their recovery. And, now after enduring my own health challenges, I now understand how misguided I have been. Because you see, Rabbi, I watched as my friends and even some of my family became me - how they hesitated and avoided visiting me in the hospital, or even at home."
How many caring, well-intended people have stayed away, albeit consciously or even subconsciously, when a loved one or a community member is sick? Trying to respect privacy, not knowing what to say, the busyness of daily life, dislike of hospitals - the excuses are limitless and pile up until so much time passes that we are embarrassed to initiate a visit or worse yet, the loved one leaves this world and we are left with guilt and regret. If only, if only, we had fulfilled the mitzvah of bikkur holim, visiting the sick, to which we are introduced through the rabbinic understanding of the opening words of this week's Torah portion, Parashat Vayera:
"And the Lord appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. Looking up, he saw three men standing near him..."
Having just circumcised himself at the end of the previous chapter, the Talmud Bava Metzia, records that God appeared to Abraham on the third day after his circumcision and the Holy One, Blessed be He, came and inquired after the state of his health. And, says the Talmud elsewhere: "The Holy One practices bikkur holim (visits the sick), so to shall you visit the sick." (Sotah 14a) So, we are commanded to visit those that are sick. A good enough reason, perhaps - God says to do so?
As long as people are sick, there is a need to help ease their pain, physical and spiritual. And, when a person does visit someone who is sick, says Rabbi Abba, he or she takes away one sixtieth of the patient's pain. And so, the later Rabbinic codes of law establish detailed practices for when to visit, what to do, where to sit and what to say when you visit. A visitor should sit in front of, but no higher than the patient, and should not sit on the bed. The visitor should discuss affairs of life, not things that encourage fear of death. The visitor should do whatever is needed to make the person more comfortable and, of course, should recite a prayer for the patient.
Easing someone else's pain is important. But, as evidenced by the abundance of rules and practices for doing so, also remind us that it is really hard and at times, even uncomfortable. So, processes and procedures help to give boundaries and order to make it more comfortable for the person visiting and for the patient.
A caring smile, small conversation of distraction, meaningful prayer, or even simply warm presence - any one of them or all of them reminds the patient that they are not alone, that there are those that care, and that healing, physically or otherwise, is really possible. When we give that to another person, we magnify God's presence in the room and we are indeed following God's ways.
Nowhere is this illustrated better than in the Talmudic story of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and his student, Rabbi Elazar. Rabbi Yochanan was a brilliant rabbi who was thought to have been healthy, robust, and extraordinarily good looking.
One day, Rabbi Elazar, his student got sick, and Rabbi Yochanan went to visit him, to fulfill the mitzvah of bikkur holim. He saw that Rabbi Elazar was lying in a darkened room (either a literal dark room or perhaps a description of his emotional and psychological state). Rabbi Yohanan uncovered his own arm and light came forth from the radiance of his beautiful skin. Rabbi Elazar began to cry.
Seeing that Rabbi Elazar was crying, Rabbi Yochanan asked him: "Why are you crying? If it is because you did not learn as much Torah as you would have liked to in your lifetime - remember we have learned: It makes no difference whether one does much or little, as long as his intention is to serve God. And if you're crying because you were not so prosperous in your lifetime--not every man is fortunate enough to acquire both wealth and learning (implying that, of course Rabbi Elazar had acquired learning). And if you're crying because you never had children--well, I've lost ten children!"
Clearly, not the right thing to say during a bikkur holim visit. Rabbi Yohanan is trying quite unsuccessfully to help his student. He does try to cheer him up, alluding to Rabbi Elazar's piety and learning, but is it any wonder this does not work? He speaks of Rabbi Elazar's lifetime as if it is ending, implying that perhaps Rabbi Elazar is going to die. And then he tries "Whatever is happening to you - I have it worse." What patient that you know wants to hear that he is dying? And, what person suffering wants to hear his or her visitor playing a game of one upping each other?
As well-intended as Rabbi Yochanan might have been, he is clearly NOT bringing comfort or healing to his student. He's trying so hard to say the right thing that he doesn't even realize what Rabbi Elazar really needs from him. And so Rabbi Elazar answers his teacher. "You want to know why I'm crying? I'm crying for the beauty of your arm, your healthy, attractive body, which one day will decay in the ground."
And Rabbi Yohanan replies, "Well, that's something to cry about..." And the two of them cry together.
Then Rabbi Yohanan says to his student: "Give me your hand." And, it is with this that Rabbi Elazar is healed.
The lesson of this story is so powerful and so very important: bikkur holim is not about words of wisdom. The mitzvah of bikkur holim is complete when the experiences of the visitor and the patient are ultimately joined together. Only when Rabbi Yochanan is able to recognize his own mortality is he really able to empathize with Rabbi Elazar and bring him healing. At that moment, Rabbi Yochanan recognizes that Rabbi Elazar is not just a body on the bed, but that they are both mortal beings whose humanity leaves them vulnerable, frail, and together. And, through touch they communicate their shared experience and shared suffering.
Next time someone you love (or even someone you just know from in the community) is sick, reach out and touch them - hold their hand. Let them feel your warm presence, your sheltering embrace, cry with them. God visits the sick, so we should too!