Urgent message:

Given the most challenging situation in Israel at this time, I urge all to pray for the bereaved families, the hostages, the missing and the many casualties. Please try to perform additional mitzvot, send funds to help the needy and grieving families, and attend the rallies that are being organized in support of Israel.

May the Al-mighty protect the State of Israel, its citizens and bless it with peace!

“The Mitzvah of Bikur Cholim–Visiting the Sick”
(updated and revised from Vayeira 5764-2003)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeira, G-d appears to Abraham in Aylonei Mamrei–the Plains of Mamrei, (Genesis 18:1), וְהוּא יֹשֵׁב פֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל כְּחֹם הַיּוֹם, 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 him as וְהוּא–“v’hoo”–and he” is sitting at the entrance of the tent. In order to know that Abraham is the subject of this text, it is necessary to refer back to the end of last week’s parasha, parashat Lech Lecha, 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 Lecha to our parasha. Joining the two scenarios, the 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.

Cited by Rashi, Genesis 18:1, the Midrash in Genesis Rabba 50:2, 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 arriving guests. However, when the Al-mighty saw Abraham’s distress over the lack of guests, He sent the angels who appeared in the image of human beings, to Abraham’s home. The Midrash explains further 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 Torah, in Deuteronomy 4:4, instructs the Jewish nation: וְאַתֶּם הַדְּבֵקִים בַּהשׁם אֱ־לֹקֵיכֶם, חַיִּים כֻּלְּכֶם הַיּוֹם, You who cling to the L-rd, your G-d–you are all alive. Since it is impossible for human beings to cling physically to G-d, the obvious meaning of the verse is that 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 the commentators, who focus on parashat Vayeira, underscore the importance of visiting the sick. After all, they argue, that just as we see that even the Al-mighty Himself visited the sick and sent His angel to heal Abraham, so every person must imitate the Al-mighty’s example of bikur cholim and visit those who are sick. The rabbis of the Talmud, in Sotah 14a, when discussing the merits of emulating G-d’s meritorious actions, specifically highlight the Al-mighty’s visit to Abraham when he was sick.

What, we may ask, is the purpose and benefit of Bikur Cholim?

Our tradition maintains that only upon personally visiting the sick and viewing firsthand the person’s suffering, can the visitor fully 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 (Nedarim 39b and 40a), 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.” Based on this experience, Rabbi Akiva was accustomed to say that he who fails to visit the sick is akin to a murderer.

There are 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, those who are aware should try to secure financial assistance to pay for the patient’s medical treatment and care during recuperation. Obviously, visitors should use common sense when deciding how early and how frequently to visit an ill person. The Code of Jewish Law advises visitors not to
come too early in the morning nor too late at night. Visitors are counseled to dress in an honorable manner, 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 an 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 responded, “And when you pray, add a prayer that I be spared visits from any more stupid people.”

The Talmud in Nedarim 39b, states that each visitor removes 1/60 of the patient’s sickness, underscoring the profound emotional impact that 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: אֵלּוּ דְבָרִים שֶׁאָדָם אוֹכֵל פֵּרוֹתֵיהֶן בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶּה,  וְהַקֶּרֶן קַיֶּמֶת לוֹ לָעוֹלָם הַבָּא, 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 on the list is visiting the sick.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that the mitzvot enumerated in this Mishnah that include honoring parents, providing hospitality, attending to the dead, etc. are the kinds of actions that generally leave a person with a sense of fulfillment, if not joy. These deeds, says Rabbi 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.” (Rabbi 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.