Visiting The Sick

A recent Bat Mitzvah, Rachel Goldstein, does a wonderful mitzvah: she visits the Ronald McDonald House in New Haven to play with children whose siblings are being treated in near by hospitals. Rachel and her mother Tanya have gone to the house to do craft projects and play games with the kids while the parents are in the hospital with their siblings. A mitzvah is not just a good deed. It is a commandment: We are commanded to visit the sick.

Rachel is being sensitive to another dimension of visiting the sick that most people never think about. Usually, we think about the person who is sick, but we forget about what doctors call “the other passengers on the train,” the caregivers and the family members whose lives are drastically changed. Usually, no one thinks about them. So I give Rachel and Tanya a lot of credit for doing things for the people everyone else forgets. Sickness has many dimensions. In the Torah, Genesis 17, Abraham is in terrible pain from an operation, and at the beginning of the next chapter, G-d and angels come to see him. So even G-d and the angels visit the sick.

Visiting the sick is a great Mitzvah, but like many other Mitzvot, there are times that it is an easy commandment to fulfill, at other times it is a difficult one. Even this seemingly simple and beautiful mitzvah of visiting the sick can be really complicated.

In Judaism, there are times that we are told to hold off visiting the sick until things change. There are times we are told that perhaps it would be better not to rush to perform the Mitzvah of visiting the sick. I can think of times when you should not visit. For example, if the person is deemed highly contagious and your own immune system is already compromised. But that is focusing on you. I can think of time that perhaps it would be better for you to avoid visiting someone that you know is ill that focuses on what’s best for them instead of what’s best for you.

Okay, let’s say you have a cold. Do you really want to bring those germs into contact with your friend? Not to mention that, if they are in a health center, you are risking passing those germs along to others in the facility. But I see people with colds visiting the sick in hospitals.

But Judaism is even more sensitive. We know that you can be sick in ways that you really don’t want anyone to see you. In such cases, it is not just that these things might be contagious; it is that these things may bring embarrassment to the one who is ill.

So yes, there are times that we are taught that one should not visit the sick. There are many times that you should ask if the person wishes a visit or is up to company. This gives them some control over something in an environment where they often have little, if any, control.

If you go visit even when you are told that they do not want company, make sure that you are doing this to help make them feel better and that you are not doing this to fulfill some need of your own.

The story in the Torah where we find three strangers visiting Abraham gives us another reason that we may want to delay a visit for at least a certain time period. Following the sequence that the angels have come to visit him after his operation, we see that Abraham not only greets them, he gets up out of his sickbed. He feels the need to display hospitality to his guests.

But Abraham does not just get them a snack like some chips and dip. He prepares a lavish feast for them.

True, it might get your mind off of your pain for the moment, but what physician, in his right mind would encourage you to do the bending, the lifting, and such that you would need to do to follow Abraham’s example. Maybe Abraham would have been better off without the visitors at this particular time.

This all needs thoughtfulness. So let me tell you two quick stories that taught me more about visiting the sick than anything I ever read or heard.

I was a young rabbi and I was vising a woman in the hospital who was about to have what I considered a minor operation in an hour or so. She was very scared, and I was trying to keep her calm, so I said, “please don’t be scared. They do a hundred of these operations a day. It’s a piece of cake.” And she said, “Rabbi, I love you, but it’s not your cake.”

I have never forgotten those words. When you visit someone, don’t ever minimize what they’re going through, even if you think they’re overreacting to what they’re going through. And if you went through something similar, don’t talk a lot about your experience. Not everything is about you.

Visiting the sick, is not about you, it’s about visiting the sick.

My father once had an operation, and he had been terrified, but it was a major success, and they let me see him in the recovery room. He was still in a fog from the anesthesia, and really confused, and still really scared. I told him that everything was great, and that he was going to be just fine. And he yelled at me and told me that I was lying to him, and that he was going to die. I kept telling him that he was wrong, and he kept telling me I was lying. My father had never talked to me like that, and I was a little shaken, but I kept telling myself it wasn’t him talking. When I saw him the next day. he was
all smiles. So I said, “You know Daddy, that was pretty tough yesterday.” He said, “What do you mean?” I said that he had really yelled at me. He had no idea whatsoever what I was talking about. I said, “Do you remember me being here?” He said, “Sure, and I’m so happy you were.”

What I learned is that the most important thing about visiting the sick is just being there. It’s not the words you say, and you don’t have a magic wand. Even in my father’s fear and fog, he knew I was there. And that’s what mattered.

Visiting the sick is a commandment, and we should follow the commandment, the way that Rachel and Tanya do. But when we do, we have to do it thoughtfully, choosing the “when” carefully, and choosing the “how” carefully. But if you’re careful, and you do it right, you won’t just be a visitor to those people, to them, you won’t just be a friend in a time of need; to them, you will be an angel.

Rabbi Scolnic

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