“The Mitzvah of Bikur Cholim-Visiting the Sick”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeira, G-d appears to Abraham in Ay’lonay Mam’rei–the Plains of Mamrei (Genesis 18:1), “V’hoo yo’shayv peh’tach ha’ohel, k’chom ha’yom,” and he [Abraham] is sitting at the entrance of the tent in the heat of the day. Abraham lifts his eyes and sees three men standing in front of him, and hastens to offer them hospitality.

Oddly enough, Abraham’s name is missing from this entire narrative. Scripture merely refers to “v’hoo“–and “he” is sitting at the entrance of the tent. In order to know who is the subject of this text, our rabbis refer back to the end of last week’s parasha, parashat Lech L’chah, to discover that it is Abraham to whom G-d appears.

Based on that connection, our rabbis also link the circumcision of Abraham from the end of parashat Lech L’chah to our parasha. Joining the two scenarios, our rabbis determine that Abraham is sitting in the entrance of his tent, because he is recovering from the very painful adult circumcision that he had performed on himself at age 99.

The Midrash describes the scene in greater detail stating that the Al-mighty caused the sun to burn brightly so that the ailing Abraham would not be burdened by the arrival of guests. However, when the Al-mighty saw Abraham’s distress over the lack of guests, he sent the angels, in the image of human beings, to Abraham’s home. The rabbis in Bereishit Rabbah 50:2 teach that the Al-mighty sent three angels to perform three different functions: one to heal Abraham, a second to inform Sarah that she was to give birth, and a third to overturn Sodom.

The Bible in Deuteronomy 4:4 instructs the Jewish nation: “V’ah’tem hahd’vay’kim ba’Hashem Eh’lokaychem, chayim kul’chem ha’yom,” You who cling to the Lord, your G-d–you are all alive. Since it is impossible for human beings to cling physically to G-d, obviously the meaning of the verse is that we mortals need to cling to the Al-mighty’s commandments, to fulfill them with sincerity and to study G-d’s actions and behaviors.

That is why our commentators focus on Parashat Vayeira, underscoring the importance of visiting the sick. After all, they argue, we see that even the Al-mighty Himself visits the sick and sends his angel to heal Abraham, so every person must imitate the Al-mighty’s example of bikur cholim and visit the sick.

What, we may ask, is the purpose and benefit of Bikur Cholim? Our tradition maintains that only when one visits the sick and views firsthand the person’s suffering can the visitor empathize with the person’s plight. The visitor is then moved to pray on behalf of the sick person, asking for compassion–thus metaphysically giving a “new life” to the ill person. Furthermore, when a visitor sees the ill person, the visitor can determine more precisely what are the needs of the patient.

The Talmud records that one of Rabbi Akiva’s students fell ill, but no one bothered to visit him. So Rabbi Akiva himself arranged to have the student’s floor swept and washed, and the sick man recovered. “My master,” the sick man said to Rabbi Akiva, “You have revived me.” From this experience, Rabbi Akiva was accustomed to say that he who fails to visit the sick is akin to a murderer (Nedarim 39b and 40a).

There are quite a few common-sense guidelines that the Code of Jewish Law spells out for those wishing to properly visit the sick. Obviously, if the ill person is impoverished and needy, one should try to secure financial assistance to pay for the patient’s medical treatment and care during recuperation. One should use common sense when deciding how early and how frequently to visit an ill person. The Code of Jewish Law advises visitors not come too early in the morning or too late at night. Visitors are counseled to dress in an honorable fashion, and in a way that will give cheer to the ill person. Visitors should sit in a place where it will not be a strain for the sick person to speak. Guests should not overstay their welcome, and must pray for the sick person, for without prayer the essential mitzvah of bikur cholim remains unfulfilled.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in his book Jewish Literacy, cites the medieval Rabbi Eliezer ben Isaac of Worms who taught that visitors should always “enter the room cheerfully” because patients carefully monitor the reaction of visitors, and any look of shock on the guest’s face can be terribly demoralizing. Francine Klagsburn in her book, Voices of Wisdom, tells a story of a imprudent visitor who came to see a sick man and asked the patient what ailed him. When the patient described his malady, the visitor responded, “Oh my father died of the same disease!” The sick man became visibly upset. In order to calm the patient the visitor said, “Don’t worry, I’ll pray to G-d to heal you.” The sick man answered, “And when you pray, add a prayer that I be spared visits from any more stupid people.”

The Talmud in Nedarim 29b states that each visitor removes 1/60 of the patient’s sickness, underscoring the profound emotional impact a positive visit can have on a person’s physical condition.

Each day, in our morning prayers we recite the opening mishnayot of tractate Peah. The second Mishnah reads: “Aylu d’varim sheh’adam oh’chel pay’ro’tayhem bah’olem ha’zeh, v’ha’keren kah’yeh’met lo lah’olam ha’bah,” These are the things of which people enjoy the fruits in this life, and the stock remains for them in the world to come. Prominent in the list is visiting the sick. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that the mitzvot enumerated in this Mishnah, which include honoring parents, providing hospitality, and attending to the dead, are the kinds of actions that generally leave one with a sense of fulfillment, if not joy. These deeds, says Hirsch, have a beneficial effect upon our relationships with our fellow human beings, and aid us greatly in our own attempts to reach personal perfection. Consequently, “‘the interest’ of such acts can be enjoyed even here below, while the principle of spiritual and moral achievements which will accompany us to the hereafter will remain ours for eternity.” (Hirsch, Prayer Book, p.10)

By imitating G-d we become G-d like. This is the true meaning of “clinging” to G-d.

May you be blessed.