In this week’s Torah portion we read of leprosy. In ancient times the priest served as the doctor. It was he who examined the skin infections to determine if they were leprous or not. If the person had leprosy he was placed in isolation for seven days. If he still had leprosy he was moved outside of the camp.
Leviticus is obsessed with ritual purity. So much so that it pushed those who had leprosy or who were deformed outside of the community. In a word this is wrong. It is wrong on two counts. No one should ever be without his or her community in such a time of need. To my mind the value of community supersedes that of ritual. And #2 the obligation to care for the sick extends beyond the professionals, in this case the priest.
Let’s begin with #2. The mitzvah of bikkur holim is a mitzvah that is required of all. It is not just for the rabbi, or for the family, or for the doctor. It is incumbent upon everyone. I know that it is a very difficult mitzvah to fulfill, but perhaps that is why it is required, that is why it is an obligation. So here are a few of our wise rabbis’ advice and counsel on visiting the sick.
One should not stay too long. Then the sick person would in effect become a host. One can visit frequently, but not during the first three hours of the day. Why? The person would more likely be feeling better and not need a visit then. Conversely don’t visit in the last three hours of the day when the person might feel worse. Then the visitor might lose hope. Be careful not to give false hope but also not cause despair when visiting. This is indeed a tricky balance. Be truthful, but hopeful.
There are two reasons why we visit the sick—according to the tradition. To look after the person’s needs. The tradition likens such visits to a medicine that aids in recovery. The Talmud says, “Whoever visits a sick person helps him recover.” The second reason why we visit is to pray for the person. At the bedside one can recite, “May God have mercy upon you among the other sick of Israel.” At synagogue we say the familiar Mi Shebeirach prayer. Praying lifts the spirits of the sick person as well as the visitor. Or perhaps it offers us a concrete action to perform. That is why we pray together as a community—with others we pray for those who are sick.
The second reason why we must never push the sick outside of the camp, outside of the community, is because they need community, most especially when they are sick. We lift each other up. Too often people think that their illness is their burden and theirs to carry alone. They keep it private so as not to burden others. But the meaning of belonging to a holy community is that we are there for each other.
We live in a world where the most trivial and silliest, and most intimate of things are posted by people on the internet. Yet their struggles and pains are supposed to be kept hidden. This stoicism is not Judaism.
Judaism is all about the community. It is all about us. We believe we must be there for each other. To visit the sick is a sacred obligation. No one at his or her greatest hour of need should be alone, should be left alone and be without community.
There is the Jewish belief that visiting the sick is an imitation of God. It is because God visited Abraham after he was recovering from circumcision. The highest mitvot, gemilut hasadim, are those where we imitate God.
This teaches an essential truth. By visiting the sick we bring God’s healing to the world. We can worry about who is pure and who is impure, as in this week’s portion, or we can get busy doing God’s work here on earth.
I choose to get busy. I hope and pray that all of us will do the same, that we will each feel the import of this obligation, and help those who are in need of healing. Together we can always accomplish far more than by ourselves.