Importance of Visiting the Sick
Aware as we may be of the importance of visiting and assisting people
who are ill, we still have to overcome our fears and hesitations
in order to perform this mitzvah.
By Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson
Reprinted from It’s
a Mitzvah!, published by Behrman House and the Rabbinical Assembly,
1995. © Behrman House, Inc., reprinted with permission.
Hope is the gift we bring when we visit the sick.
By sitting with a bedridden friend, we let that person know that
he or she is not forgotten, that the outside world still cares.
We offer hope by discussing plans for the future, by sharing the
latest news from work, the latest adventures of a mutual friend,
or the most recent cultural event. By bringing information from
beyond the four walls of the sick room, we expand the horizons of
the sick person, allowing him or her to enjoy a renewed fullness
of vision and a sense of belonging. Of course, the most precious
gift we can offer is our concerned attention: We can listen to the
individual who is suffering from an illness.
Anyone who has ever been sick remembers how important
such visits were. Each of us carries memories of the time someone
touched us, of a gift that brought a sense of expectancy and a promise
for the future, of a phone call at precisely that moment when we
were feeling lowest. To be able to lift someone’s spirits
by such a simple gesture as sending a card or visiting for a few
minutes is to make ourselves truly shutafei ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu
(“partners with God”).
Yet even as we recognize the importance of bikkur
holim (“visiting the sick”), even as we feel grateful
to those brave and loving people who came to visit us in our sickness,
we still feel hesitant, awkward, and fearful when it comes to visiting
the sick ourselves. Resistance to visiting the sick is quite common
and emerges from several different concerns, among them the following.
- We are afraid of illness and death. Watching someone wrestle
with a serious illness is terrifying. It conjures the thought,
“that will be me some day.” Most of us apportion our
time as though we will live forever. Visiting someone who is sick
or dying forces us to confront our own mortality and the recognition
that our time is finite, a limitation most of us would rather
- We fear a loss of control. When visiting the sick, we are forced
to confront the terrifying reality that life does not tailor itself
to our desires or our demands. We are forced to acknowledge that
many aspects of life are beyond human control, that health, fitness,
and life itself are gifts. We may be able to affect them positively,
but ultimately they remain beyond our manipulation.
- We are uncomfortable in one another’s presence. We rarely
reveal our personal concerns, hopes, and fears to other people.
Rarely do we share the issues and goals that motivate one another’s
lives. Instead, we seek ways to be distracted together. We watch
movies, television shows, or plays in silence. We find activities
that fill our moments with other people -- in sports or culture
or eating. Visiting someone who is sick precludes all of these
escapes from direct, personal interaction. At a sickbed, there
is no alternative but to speak with one another, and doing this
often forces one to delve into fundamental concerns and questions.
At a hospital, the distraction of activities cannot provide an
escape from the discomfort we feel in the presence of another
For all of these reasons, and for countless personal
ones, a chasm separates the discomfort we feel in the presence of
illness from our recognition of the importance of bikkur holim.
Confronting our fears and our frailty can bring us an acceptance
of reality. It can help us appreciate every day of life as a gift
and a blessing, and it can bring about a deeper involvement with
our families and communities. The sense of concern and hope that
a sick person receives from bikkur holim is impossible to provide
in any other way. Only the visit and attention of a friend, relative,
or member of the community can inspire the sick with the knowledge
that they are not alone, that they are not abandoned.
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is Vice-President
of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles and Dean of its Ziegler
School of Rabbinical Studies. He served as a congregational rabbi
in Southern California for ten years. Rabbi Artson is the author
Bedside Torah and co-author of a children’s book, I
Have Some Questions about God.