Visiting the sick: A rewarding mitzvah

Amy Feder is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Temple Israel.

By Rabbi Amy Feder

In my teens, when I first started thinking of becoming a rabbi, I spent a summer shadowing several rabbis in St. Louis to get a sense of what they did every day and to try and imagine whether I could ever stand in their shoes. By the end of the summer, I had made a decision. 

There was no way I could ever be a rabbi. 

It wasn’t the public speaking that worried me, or the years of study, or the idea of being on call 24/7. The part that terrified me was making hospital visits. I remember accompanying my mentors as they visited people in the hospital, and the sensitivity, comfort and humor they were able to share with their congregants just awed me. 

How did they find that delicate balance between supporting people in their suffering without causing them further discomfort by talking about their ailments? Weren’t they nervous that they would say the wrong thing and somehow make things worse?

I decided to become a rabbi despite my fears, but I knew I would have to overcome them, so I spent my second year of school interning as a hospital chaplain. The first thing I was taught was: Get over it. My fears were nothing compared with the fears of those I visited. 

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So many of us feel nervous or uncomfortable around sickness that we forget that the person in the room who feels the worst is lying in bed. They are in pain, out of their element and often afraid. As visitors fulfilling the mitzvah of bikur cholim, visiting the sick, we have to move beyond our insecurities to ensure that the focus is on them. They can choose whether or not they wish to talk about their illness, and the visitor follows their lead. 

This week’s Torah portion seems to offer an unusual perspective on how we deal with ill members of our community. Tazria states that people afflicted with skin disease should “cry, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ ” and separate themselves from the community. Why would they be asked to do this? Is it to shame them? Is it for public safety, an ancient verbal quarantine? 

In the Talmud, Rabbi Abbahu tells us that they do so to warn passersby to keep away. Can you imagine the additional suffering and embarrassment that would cause an ill person! As if this potentially disfiguring disease were not bad enough, they would be required to shout out to anyone who came near them just how sick they were. It makes me grateful for HIPAA and privacy laws in practice today.

The Gemara, however, cites a Baraita explaining that the reason a person would cry out that they were “unclean” is so that their suffering would become known to many people, so that many could pray for mercy on the afflicted person’s behalf. This puts quite a different twist on the idea. 

What if being open about personal sickness was a given? What if, in fact, the requirement to share your illness with the public took away the potential discomfort or shame, because everyone did it? If sharing one’s illness ensured that a sick person would receive as many prayers and good wishes as possible, how lovely this custom could be. It would prevent the ill person from feeling that they couldn’t or shouldn’t share their suffering. It would also give visitors a sense of purpose, knowing that even if they couldn’t offer physical comfort to their ill friend, theirs prayers would be heard and appreciated.

So often we keep our suffering to ourselves or don’t acknowledge when we know others are ill because we don’t want to embarrass them. Perhaps Tazria offers us the opportunity to do just the opposite. 

May we feel free enough to share our hurts with those around us, knowing that in doing so we are giving them the opportunity to do a mitzvah for us through their prayer, consolation and comfort.