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Vayera 5782 - Bikkur Holim, Visiting the Sick

Friday, October 22, 2021

When you or a loved one has been ill in the past, what has someone else done that has been helpful or meaningful to you?

Tomorrow morning, we will learn the Talmudic statement that hakhnasat orkhim (welcoming guests) is a greater act than welcoming the Shekhinah (the Divine Presence). Just a few sentences later, in the Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Shabbat, Rabbi Yehuda Bar Sheilah says that Rabbi Asi says that Rabbi Yohanan says that there are six matters a person enjoys the profit of in this world and continues to enjoy the principle in the World to Come: welcoming guests (as we mentioned last night), visiting the sick, attention to prayer, waking up early to study Torah, raising children to study Torah, and judging another person favorably (Shabbat 127a). In Parashat Vayera, while Avraham exemplifies the value of hakhnasat orkhim (welcoming guests), God Godself exemplifies the value of bikur holim (visiting the sick). 

12th century Ashkenazi commentator Rashi teaches that in the opening lines of Parashat Vayera, when God appears (vayera) to Avraham, God appears in order to check up on a man who is healing from his recent circumcision. Later in the parashah, when Hagar and Yishmael are lost and thirsty in the desert, God hears the voice of the young man - וישמע אלהים את קול הנער - and sends an angel to help him and his mother (21:17). In visiting Avraham, Hagar, and Yishmael, God demonstrates the holy work of visiting those in need of healing. God checks up on Avraham, even though Avraham has not asked directly, and God listens to Yishmael crying for help, believing and acknowledging his need.

When we visit the ill, we can think back to deeds and words that were once helpful to us and our family. We start out by offering our presence, and then, according to our own abilities, we offer concrete tasks and resources - for example, childcare, meals, or transportation. For some who are sick or healing, the most helpful resource is a listening ear, and for some, the most helpful resource is a quiet moment alone. As 13th century French commentator Hizkuni remarks about attending to visitors, it can be helpful to suggest one or two ways you can help, as the other person may be too modest or embarrassed to ask for help herself. Hizkuni’s remarks are just as applicable to visiting the sick - it is hard to admit that help is needed, especially if that person has felt independent up until this point. Often, it’s hard for someone in pain to know what is needed until someone else offers a suggestion. As the Rabbis of the Talmud Bavli, Masekhet B’rakhot teach about bikur holim, “A prisoner cannot free himself from prison” (5b) - a person in pain often needs others to hold her hand and help lift her up, to both help her discover what she needs and to bring her those needs. And when that person’s needs require ample time and emotion, her caregivers need extra attention and support, as well.

As the Jewish tradition places such a high value on bikur holim, this synagogue is a wonderful resource in helping with the healing process. If you know that someone is ill or if you are preparing for a medical procedure, please let us know, so that we can practice that mitzvah of bikur holim on your behalf and so that we can keep you in our prayers, on our Mi Shebeirakh list. Please know that I, personally, will not share your or a loved one’s medical information with others in the community unless you ask me to do so. We cannot deal with illness or injury alone, and yet, we cannot recruit others to help us unless they know we are in pain. After all, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” אם אין אני לי, מי לי? We are a community who cares about our members, who wants to reach out to those in need.

As Rashi teaches at God’s visit to Yishmael, God hears the prayers of the sick before all others’ prayers. And yet, sometimes, when we are sick, it is hard to know what to say to God. We pray with and for those who are sick to add to their prayer, to encourage them to keep hoping towards help, and to let them know that they are not alone. By helping them with what they need, we amplify their voices in their cry to God, and ideally, we hasten the healing process. At the bare minimum, each week, in this community, we recite a Mi Shebeirakh, a prayer for healing, on behalf of all those in our community who need that extra attention…

May God who blessed our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, bring blessing and healing to all those who suffer illness within our congregational family. May the Holy One mercifully restore them to health and vigor, granting them spiritual and physical well-being, together with all others who are ill. And although Shabbat is a time to refrain from petitions, we yet hope and pray that healing is at hand. And let us say: Amen (Siddur Sim Shalom 144). Shabbat Shalom. 

Fri, December 2 2022 8 Kislev 5783