Visiting the Sick in Judaism

Aware as we may be of the importance of visiting and assisting people who are ill, we still have to overcome our fears and hesitations in order to perform this mitzvah.

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Reprinted from It’s a Mitzvah!, published by Behrman House and the Rabbinical Assembly, 1995. © Behrman House, Inc., reprinted with permission.

Hope is the gift we bring when we visit the sick. By sitting with a bedridden friend, we let that person know that he or she is not forgotten, that the outside world still cares. We offer hope by discussing plans for the future, by sharing the latest news from work, the latest adventures of a mutual friend, or the most recent cultural event. By bringing information from beyond the four walls of the sick room, we expand the horizons of the sick person, allowing him or her to enjoy a renewed fullness of vision and a sense of belonging. Of course, the most precious gift we can offer is our concerned attention: We can listen to the individual who is suffering from an illness.

Anyone who has ever been sick remembers how important such visits were. Each of us carries memories of the time someone touched us, of a gift that brought a sense of expectancy and a promise for the future, of a phone call at precisely that moment when we were feeling lowest. To be able to lift someone’s spirits by such a simple gesture as sending a card or visiting for a few minutes is to make ourselves truly shutafei ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu (“partners with God”).

Yet even as we recognize the importance of bikkur holim (“visiting the sick”), even as we feel grateful to those brave and loving people who came to visit us in our sickness, we still feel hesitant, awkward, and fearful when it comes to visiting the sick ourselves. Resistance to visiting the sick is quite common and emerges from several different concerns, among them the following:

1. We are afraid of illness and death. Watching someone wrestle with a serious illness is terrifying. It conjures the thought, “that will be me some day.” Most of us apportion our time as though we will live forever. Visiting someone who is sick or dying forces us to confront our own mortality and the recognition that our time is finite, a limitation most of us would rather ignore.

2.  We fear a loss of control. When visiting the sick, we are forced to confront the terrifying reality that life does not tailor itself to our desires or our demands. We are forced to acknowledge that many aspects of life are beyond human control, that health, fitness, and life  itself are gifts. We may be able to affect them positively, but ultimately they remain beyond our manipulation.

3. We are uncomfortable in one another’s presence. We rarely reveal our personal concerns, hopes, and fears to other people. Rarely do we share the issues and goals that motivate one another’s lives. Instead, we seek ways to be distracted together. We watch movies, television shows, or plays in silence. We find activities that fill our moments with other people -- in sports or culture or eating. Visiting someone who is sick precludes all of these escapes from direct, personal interaction. At a sickbed, there is no alternative but to speak with one another, and doing this often forces one to delve into fundamental concerns and questions. At a hospital, the distraction of activities cannot provide an escape from the discomfort we feel in the presence of another human being.

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Rabbi Bradley Artson

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is Vice-President of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and Dean of its Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies. He served as a congregational rabbi in Southern California for ten years. Rabbi Artson?is the author of The Bedside Torah and co-author of a children's book, I Have Some Questions about God.