If you ever have the chance to visit the frum community in Seattle, Washington, you’ll notice two shuls with the same name, right across the street from the other. My mother-in-law grew up attending the long-standing Ashkenzic Bikur Cholim synagogue, which faces a different building — the Sephardic Bikur Cholim synagogue. When I asked her father, our Saba Joe a”h, why not one, but two shuls, are named “Bikur Cholim,” he responded that this mitzvah was the foundation upon which the community was formed.
We often loosely translate the mitzvah of “bikur cholim” as “visiting the sick.” However, this is an erroneous translation.
Rav Hutner, in his sefer Iggros U’Ksavim, explains that the true tranSaveslation of bikur is to probe and discern. He brings a comparison between the concept of “bikur mum — inspecting a korban for a blemish” which was in practice at the time of the Beis HaMikdash. The Kohanim were obligated to perform an intense visual scrutiny of both the outside, and later the insides, of an animal for any blemishes, in order to establish it as a suitable candidate for a kosher korban. Similarly, the bikur involved in tending to the ill involves investigating and exploring what the ill person needs and how we can be of service to him.
Once we interpret bikur cholim correctly it changes how we approach the mitzvah. If we regard the mitzvah as simply “visiting” the sick, we automatically assume that our responsibility is defined as spending as much time as possible right next to the sickbed. We may even bring “proof” from the Gemara, which states that the mere presence at the bedside of the sick person has the power to erase one-sixtieth of the person’s illness.
We therefore find it disconcerting when we make the effort to go visit and are told, “He’s not taking visitors right now,” or “She’s not up to it.” Our natural inclination is to reply indignantly, “But here I am — ready and willing to remove the burden of one-sixtieth of her illness! Doesn’t she recognize the value of my efforts and how it can benefit her?”
However, once we recognize that our aim in fulfilling the mitzvah is not merely visiting, but investigating need, then our goals shift. We approach this mitzvah with the same scrutiny and caution of the Kohein inspecting the animal. In this case, our bikur is not searching for blemishes, but rather, perceiving what the sick person actual needs. Our visual acuity in this analysis is what will enable us to act properly. And the aid to perfect vision in this situation is the glasses of sensitivity — viewing each situation according to individual need.
Too Sleepy to Care
Every morning, at the close of birchos haschachar, we thank Hashem for removing “snumah” from our lids. Loosely translated, “snumah” means drowsiness. In a recent shiur that I heard from “Fundamentals” columnist Debbie Greenblatt, she quoted from Rav Schwab on Prayer where he explained the difference between this brachah and the earlier brachah of “pokei’ach ivrim — opening the eyes of the blind.”
She explained that this brachah over the removal of drowsiness refers to the removal of the heavy slumber that was induced in Adam before the creation of Chavah. Before Adam fell into this sleep, he was able to comprehend the essence of every creation. Hence, his ability to name each animal. However, once Hashem induced this deep sleep, which led to the creation of Chavah, there is no mention of Adam waking from this. He never regained that level of “wakefulness,” that keen perception. This drowsiness became the de facto state of all of mankind.
Periodically, however, Hashem allows the veil to lift and can perceive thing clearly. We bless Him for those situations, for “removing this drowsiness from our eyes.” This is the meaning of the brachah. When we are able to use Torah and our awareness of Hashem to have insight into others’ needs, we are blessed with this level of perception.
Having been on the receiving end of bikur cholim, I always marvel at the fact that the most basic human need during sickness and hospitalization is physical sustenance. The need to be nourished properly affects my ability to care and advocate for my child.
In any situation of sickness, be it of a child, parent, or the mother of a family herself, practical details like meals usually fall to the wayside. I can relate acutely to stories and scenarios I’ve heard from various people who have experienced this. What I find most interesting is the gamut of stories, which run from a profusion of variety to the utter lack thereof, in the food offered.
Many times, people find themselves in situations where they want to help out, but don’t know the best route to take. Baruch Hashem many of our communities have organized bikur cholim committees that take responsibility for meeting all the needs of families dealing with illness. With such resources, it’s important that those who wish to help do so through the structure already in place, and not opt for their own independent offerings.
I recall a family I know who received about ten cheesecakes before Shavuos when their mother was ill. The irony was that most of the family was lactose intolerant. A committee in place would help prevent such a situation.
If you are personally organizing meals for a family, here too bikur is essential: Investigate and find out eating times, allergies, and preferences. Remember, routine has been thrown completely off kilter due to illness, and having predictable, familiar, healthy, and enjoyable food can create an island of stability in a sea of chaos. Resist the impulse to just “drop off” a cheesecake, even if yours is really delicious.
When it comes to needs outside the culinary arena, our binah yeseirah needs to kick in full force. A general offer like, “Let me know what I can do for you,” is seldom met with any specific request. It’s rare to find a stressed and harried person who can rationally list, “I need transportation, babysitting, cleaning help, pharmacy shopping, etc. — what can you take care of for me?”
Rather, be specific in your offers of help. I remember how thankful a friend of mine was when her husband was in the hospital and I called and said, “Let me know when you need to go to the hospital — I’m your rides coordinator!”
However, it’s important here to note that offering any type of help also takes tremendous self-knowledge. When I offered to coordinate rides, I knew I didn’t have the time to actually do the driving. But I had a network of people I could tap, and this way we’d each do our share. Remember that chesed really does begin at home and stressing yourself to the point that your family suffers is not worth the sacrifice!
When it comes to sharing your own medical wisdom and connections, tread carefully. What may be a medical breakthrough to you, may be old knowledge to someone else, or, even worse, may confuse and upset them. If you really do feel your information is vital, contact a close relative, friend, or rav of the family. They can then decide if and how to pass this information on.
Acting in His Image
Rav Chaim Shmulevitz teaches that the mitzvah of bikur cholim allows us to emulate Hashem’s ways.
We see Hashem’s method of caring for the sick when he came to visit Avraham after his circumcison. Hashem could have easily healed Avraham without visiting him. Yet, Hashem wanted to teach us the essence of bikur cholim. The purpose is to show concern! And we should strive to emulate this selfless and individually tailored approach to cholim that Hashem demonstrated.
The world that we live in today gives us so many ways to communicate our thoughts. Whether it’s a simple card, phone call, or voice message, we are communicating that we are thinking about them, davening for them, and above all, showing that we care.