Online Adult Jewish learning
Other Courses in this Series:
Ethics 1: Getting Along with People
Illness & Healing
(Ethics of the Fathers 1:2)
Rabbi Yonah (ibid. [1180-1263, Spain]) explains this uncommon phraseology:
Gemilut chasadim (selfless kindness) thus constitutes one of the three fields of human endeavor that support G-ds Creation. Why is gemilut chasadim such a prominent force in G-ds purpose for Creation? Classical sources discuss the benefits of gemilut chasadim on two levels social and spiritual. On the social level, gemilut chasadim is a vital component of any functioning society. On a spiritual level, gemilut chasadim is pivotal to ones developing and refining of the G-d-like nature that is the birthright of mankind. Let us explore these two levels more fully, noting how bikur cholim fits into the scheme of the mitzvah of gemilut chasadim on each level.
In his codification of the general mitzvah, Love your neighbor as [you love] yourself, Maimonides (Laws of Mourning, 14:1-2 [1135-1204, Spain-Egypt]) discusses the sociological advantages of mutual concern among members of society:
The Torah mitzvah to Love your neighbor as [you love] yourself (Leviticus 19:18) teaches us to behave toward other people in the same manner in which we would like them to behave toward us. The Sages established certain acts of chesed (i.e., kindness) as standards of fulfilling this mitzvah. These acts are: visiting the sick, comforting mourners, burying the dead, and escorting guests.
Maimonides explains this mitzvah in terms of creating a bond of mutual assistance among people. The acts of kindness that Maimonides mentions encompass all members of society, who, at various times during the course of their lives, are in need of other peoples assistance.
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (Chofetz Chaim [1838-1933, Poland]) illustrates this ongoing need for performing acts of selfless kindness that affect everyday life.
(Source: Ahavat Chesed/Love for Selfless Kindness, ch. 2)
Independent of the social advantages of relating to others with acts of selfless kindness, mans spiritual essence is dependent on his performance of gemilut chasadim towards other people. Mans relationship to G-d, indeed mans very being, compels him to develop his character based on selfless kindness.
Before creating man, G-d defined the single, most essential element that would characterize man: with the words, Let us make man in Our image and in Our likeness (Genesis 1:26), G-d declared that man would be a G-dlike creation. Endowed with a G-d-given soul and empowered with the mission to dominate the earth through his free will, mans task is to represent G-ds Will on earth; in this way he becomes worthy of the title of man.
Prominent among mans G-dlike attributes is his ability to refine himself through the performance of gemilut chasadim. The Sefer HaChinuch (Book of Education, [14thcentury, Spain] Commandment #611) explains the Torahs system for developing this G-d-like attribute:
The Talmud (Tractate Sotah) cites specific examples, including Scriptural sources, for patterning human behavior after G-ds charitable ways:
Jewish law, as well as Talmudic and exegetical sources, establish gemilut chasadim the performance of acts of selfless kindness as a basis of all human life. Without it, societies cannot function properly, nor can man achieve his potential and his destiny as a G-dlike creation. In fact, mans spiritual essence depends on his performing acts of gemilut chasadim.
As we have pointed out, the general mitzvah of gemilut chasadim (selfless kindness) encompasses the mitzvah of bikur cholim. Nachmanides identifies three general objectives that visiting the sick should achieve:
In addition to these positive objectives, Nachmanides identifies certain behaviors that a visitor should avoid, either because they cause pain, discomfort, or embarrassment to the sick person, or because they are burdensome to him in some other way. These behaviors will be discussed in upcoming lessons.
Rabbi Yitzchock Hutner (1904-1981, Europe-America-Israel) shows how our approach to helping the sick person is contained in the very words that identify the mitzvah, bikur cholim:
We must understand that the mitzvah of visiting the sick involves far more than a visit; a major purpose in performing this mitzvah is to inquire after the sick persons specific needs with the intention of offering assistance. This function of inquiring after the needs of the sick person derives from the word bikur, which can be translated as investigation. Thus, any assistance a person is able to provide for one who is sick is included in the mitzvah of bikur cholim. A person should use his own good judgment to decide whether a given action will actually prove helpful to the sick person.
(Collected Letters of Rabbi Hutner)
Bikur cholim is far more than a simple visit; it is an opportunity to participate actively in the healing process. Yet this crucial opportunity must be addressed with the utmost sensitivity to the one who is ill. In defining bikur cholim as an investigation, Rabbi Hutner was not implying that a visitor should interrogate the sick person, her family or her other caregivers. One can do a tremendous amount to help a sick person without knowing the details of the illness or the nature of the treatment being administered, and without offering unsolicited advice (in Lessons Two and Three, we will discuss the concept of privacy relative to illness).
A visitor should seek practical ways of helping the sick person, while remaining alert to the sick persons needs and sensitive to her feelings. Knowing what to say and what not to say to the sick person and to her family, praying on behalf of the sick person, timing ones visit, and offering the kinds of assistance that would truly be appreciated, are all part of conducting an investigation in fulfillment of the mitzvah of bikur cholim. In the upcoming lessons of this course, we will discuss practical ways of turning a visit into an investigation that will genuinely benefit the sick person.
Why do people find it difficult to visit a sick person even, sometimes, to visit relatives or good friends?
People usually feel concerned about someone who is sick, yet, while many people take a strong interest in hearing news about the condition of the sick person and other details relating to the illness, these sincere sentiments do not always succeed in galvanizing them into action.
There are many reasons for the discomfort people experience over the thought of visiting someone who is seriously ill. Most people feel a general uneasiness about illness that sometimes manifests itself as fear, which results from identifying with someone elses suffering and uncertainty. People who do not fear the illness itself may fear the visit, feeling tongue-tied, since they are unsure about what to say and what not to say, fearing they might do more harm than good if they would say the wrong thing. Others may fear the prospect of having to come face-to face with the changed condition of a sick person. All these are common reasons people avoid performing the mitzvah of bikur cholim. Forgetfulness and procrastination are other common reasons.
All of these reasons for avoiding this mitzvah are understandable on some level, particularly in light of the fact that a sick person is almost always more sensitive than usual to anything that may be said or implied by well-meaning visitors. Moreover, any change in the sick persons physical appearance or emotional demeanor even if the visitor is prepared for it can be a most unsettling experience. Nevertheless, the magnitude of the kindness we perform in visiting one who is ill warrants our investing all our energies to overcome our hesitation.
Maimonides perspective on the mitzvah to Love your neighbor as [you love] yourself, and Sefer HaChinuchs perspective on the Torahs injunction to follow in G-ds ways, provide a powerful impetus to help us master our inhibitions regarding visiting a sick person.
On a social level, a persons attitude toward bikur cholim can change dramatically when he is personally affected by illness, whether his own illness or that of someone who is close to him. At such times, he can come to appreciate the value of the support of friends, relatives and members of his community. This awareness can be either a positive experience the reassuring feeling of a visitors concern for the sick person or a painful lesson, if others did not bother to visit, or if some lack of sensitivity rendered their visit unhelpful. The intense loneliness that accompanies illness, as well as the boredom and the burdens that become overwhelming when a sick person must carry on without sufficient help from others, can be bitter teachers, making one aware of how important it is to consider the needs of others who are ill.
On a spiritual level, the awareness that in fulfilling the mitzvah of bikur cholim we are in fact following in G-ds ways and refining our spiritual essence, effectively elevates a visit to a G-dly act.