Visiting the Sick: the Mitzvah of Bikur Cholim
By Larry Fine
How do we know which mitzvahs are considered big mitzvahs? We have to establish a Ďmeasuring stickí, a method of measuring or comparing mitzvahs. Now everything has various ways of measuring the inherent importance of things. As an example, how does one measure wealth? We could answer that wealth is measured simply by counting the amount of money a person possesses or instead we could try to see how much happiness the personís wealth actually brings him. Both methods are valid, even though the second method is the real measure according to the Torah.
How do we measure the importance of the mitzvah of visiting the sick as compared to other mitzvahs? We could see how many people involve themselves in this mitzvah, (but we might not see too many), or we could look at the words of the Sages who teach us that when Abraham, our Patriarch, was sick, G-d himself came to visit him. We can infer from this that if G-d troubles Himself and comes down from heaven to visit the sick, then this mitzvah must be a very important mitzvah in His eyes.
Anyone who has been sick, stuck in bed, and unable to go out and do the regular things that he/she is used to doing, can testify that lying in bed with no visitors can be at best boring if not down right difficult and depressing. Visitors cheer up the person; they make the ill feel noticed, feel important, and the visit helps pass the time needed to recover. It makes them feel wanted and cared for. It gives the ill a desire to get better and back into the mainstream of life.
How Should One Perform the Mitzvah of Visiting the Sick?
First let us approach it with understanding. There are several types of illnesses ranging from a fleeting malady, such as common colds, to serious and life threatening, such as cancer, serious internal operations or just plain broken bones. In all cases visiting the ill is a mitzvah, but each case should be considered individually before setting out.
Before going to visit, assess the situation to determine the best time to visit. Ascertain when the person is accepting visitors and not resting or receiving treatment. If the person is in the hospital, you can call the hospital to ask about visiting hours; if the person is in the house, call the house first. Alternatively you can speak with some one who has already gone to visit.
During the first days of the illness, when the illness is at its worse then the close friends, neighbors and relatives should come to visit. Afterwards those who are not so close should come. Never feel that you wonít be welcome. The only person who should not go to visit is one who is considered a foe of the ill person; some one who has a dispute with the person who is ill.
The mitzvah of visiting the sick is not confined to merely popping in, saying hello and then trotting out after exchanging a few pleasantries. Rather, inquire in a delicate manner as to the seriousness of the personís illness, assess the needs of the person, both in a hospital situation and in a house situation, and inquire if others are coming frequently to visit.
On occasion you might have had an experience with such an illness that this person is suffering from, or perhaps you know someone who has successfully gotten over this same type of illness. Share this with the patient. Perhaps a special doctor, medicine, or other type of specialized help is available that might make the personís illness easier to cope with, tolerate, or overcome. Even sharing a cold remedy that helps can be important, and for certain, sharing information about medical care for more serious illnesses is crucial.
However, do not push your ideas on the patient if he/she is not receptive to them. Sometimes there is a relative or friend that is overseeing this persons medical situation and you can speak these things over with him/her instead of the ill person.
See if the immediate needs of the ill person and his/her family are being met. Are there children who are affected or impacted by this personís illness? Perhaps there is a husband or wife who is struggling with the house, barely coping with the children and housework, or more often, the financial aspects of an extended illness. Can you help in any of these areas? Often you may be able to alert community action groups to the plight of an individual who is experiencing difficulties coping with the medical or financial aspects that accrue as a result of this illness. This is a great help.
Are other members of the general local community aware of this personís condition? Inform people in the synagogue or groups that the ill person belongs to. In the case of a common cold, it might be enough for you to bring over a fresh pot of hot soup, but in other more serious cases, it might require additional household help and financial backing. Alerting persons in the community who know this person, as well as those who deal with cases of serious need (if needed) can be a tremendous mitzvah; however, not every person who is ill wants others to know every little detail of his/her illness. Spread the word with a bit of sensitivity, having in mind the desires of the ill person.
While visiting the sick , keep in mind not to overstay and tax the patient. Often several short visits may be better than one long visit, even though it may be easier on you to come once for a long time. Please consider the ill person, perhaps a few short visits are better.
Depending on the person and the illness, bringing foodstuff or reading material may be very welcome. This requires knowledge of the personís preferences prior to visiting. Remember the elderly who are confined to their homes; they also would like an occasional visit to cheer them up.
Always be friendly and cheerful when visiting and do not bring up sad or disturbing news. Be prepared to wait outside if there is a doctor or nurse visiting at the time that you are there or if a treatment is in progress.
Before leaving, always involve G-dís ability to help overcome the illness by making a small prayer that G-d should grant the person a quick and full recovery. Also it is possible to mention that you are willing to make a MeShebarach, the prayer that is recited in the synagogues, for the ill. For this, it will be necessary to get the patientís Hebrew name and motherís Hebrew name. If they do not have Hebrew names, a MeShebarach can still be made.
In general, the rule is that the more difficult the mitzvah is to perform and the more effort you must put in to get yourself to do the mitzvah, the greater is the reward. When you have little desire to visit the sick or it is very difficult to find the time or transportation, but none the less you force yourself to go only increases the reward for the mitzvah (provided it is done properly). Remember, with all mitzvahs, including visiting the sick, according to the difficulties endured, so is the reward.
from the February 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine