The mitzvah of visiting the sick is one of those commandments that are less a ritual than an art form, so subtle that God Himself is the first practitioner, modeling the art.
God appeared to Abraham ‘‘in the heat of the day,” we’re told, when Abraham was healing after his, surely painful, circumcision. Usually when God appears in the Torah, He has something to say. Not here, or if He did, we’re not told, because visiting the sick, like paying a shivah call, isn’t about the visitor but about the person being visited. Sometimes nothing is so eloquent as silence, or waiting for cues from the one in need of healing. Sometimes nothing is as mysterious or as imperative as finding ways to emulate God Himself, particularly in a time when the New York region is injured, let alone the thousands among us who are physically wounded or even conventionally ill, each in our own way.
Several millennia later, the state of the art is being examined on Nov. 11, at the 25th annual bikkur cholim conference at UJA-Federation of New York’s Midtown offices, sponsored by the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services.
Rabbi Benjamin Blech, the keynote speaker, is himself suffering from cardiac amyloidosis, a rare and fatal heart disease. As a rabbi for many decades, he is more than familiar with pastoral bikkur cholim. Now, he’s becoming “acquainted with the night,” as Robert Frost put it, the other side of bikkur cholim.
Speaking by phone prior to the conference, Rabbi Blech says, “the reason why Gemilas Chasadim, acts of kindness,” discussed in the Mishna’s Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), “is in the plural is because the kindness and the mitzvah is not just for the recipient but also for the giver. We always tend to emphasize what the visit means to the sick person. Conversely, we don’t take into account how much this does for the people who are doing the visiting, in terms of being able to understand and be grateful for their own good health. It is similar to the aftermath of the hurricane, things that we always took for granted are now seen in a new way; the fact that we have lights, a phone, a roof, our lives. When you see the alternative, then you’re more aware of the great blessings that you have. You see your life with renewed perspective.”
Rabbi Simkha Weintraub, rabbinic director of the JBFCS’ Healing Center, will be telling the conference about the concept of “the wounded visitor,” inspired by “The Wounded Healer,” a book by Henri Nouwen that explores the idea that the visitor needs to draw on his own brokenness.
“One of the core values in bikkur cholim,” says Rabbi Weintraub, “is shared vulnerability. The visitor doesn’t have to share the diagnoses or the treatment of the person you’re trying to be there for, but you do have to share the sense of vulnerability.
Rabbi Weintraub and Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard, who is featured with Elie Wiesel in a bikkur cholim documentary, “Turn To Me,” by Murray Nossel, that will be shown at the conference, both pointed to the Talmud’s Tractate Brachot (5b) as a pivotal text necessary to understanding the art of healing and visitation.
In the text, there are several anecdotes similar to the one where Rav Yochanan was sick and was visited by Rav Chisda.
Rav Chisda asked, “Do you welcome this pain?” Rav Yochanan, described by Rabbi Weintraub as one of the great healers of the Talmud, replied: “I want neither the pain nor the reward for the pain.” Rav Chisda extended his hand, helping Rav Yochanan to stand, and cured him. Why didn’t the great healer heal himself? The Talmud answers, “A prisoner cannot free himself from prison.” It took Rav Chisda’s bikkur cholim to do that.
Another time, says Rabbi Weintraub, Rav Yochanan was visiting a younger colleague who was ill, and weeping. Rav Yochanan asks, was he crying because he didn’t study enough Torah, or because of his poverty? Are you crying because of children?
“With that last question,” says Rabbi Weintraub, “there’s a turning point in the story as [Yochanan] comes into touch with his own bereavement, his own losses.” He had 10 children die prematurely, and he carried around a small bone from the last child who died. He, too, was a wounded visitor. “Rabbi Yochanan must be aware, of what grief he, himself, is carrying. To draw on that life experience is to be there for the person being visited, if not to comfort than at least to connect.”
Nevertheless, Rabbi Weintraub adds, there are limits to self-disclosure. “In disclosing something of yourself you don’t want to become the center, you want to stay the visitor. There are [patients] who would love the visitor to talk about their experiences.” But one must take the cue from the person being visited.
Rabbi Blanchard of CLAL – the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, speaking by phone, teaches, “if you visit someone sick and don’t ask God for mercy for that person, it’s as if you didn’t visit.”
Rabbi Blanchard, co-author of “Embracing Life and Facing Death: A Jewish Guide to Palliative Care,” says, “Relationships are a key to healing, creating or deepening a connection, which helps the sick person cope with the demands of the illness and the demands of the healing process,” mystically compared to “removing one-sixtieth of the illness, it lightens the illness,” even if it doesn’t fundamentally alter it. (One-sixtieth is a traditional Talmudic formulation, such as a sleep being one-sixtieth of death, or a dream being one-sixtieth of prophecy, a percentage symbolizing a poetic borderline of truth).
The conference will also feature a tribute to Rabbi Isaac Trainin, who helped found the gathering 25 years ago. His daughter, Barbara Trainin Blank, a member of the JBFCS’ executive committee of the bikkur cholim coordinating council, says her father, who died in 2008, saw the council as “an extension of the Torah’s emphasis on taking care of the orphan and the widow, and people who are disenfranchised, people (who because of illness or disability) are needy” but sometimes beyond our awareness.
The conference will take place Sunday, Nov. 11, 8:45 a.m.-3:30 p.m., at UJA-Federation, 130 E.59th St. For more information call 212-632-4730, or www.jbfcs.org/bikurcholim.