People often treat illness as a private affair. Disease is only to be shared with the most intimate of friends. Judaism holds a contrary view. Although I would never share such confidences, we should understand, and appreciate, that our tradition believes sickness is a public concern. Alleviating pain is incumbent upon every person.
Once the Gerer Rebbe asked his disciple. “How is Moshe Yaakov doing?” The disciple shrugged his shoulders and stammered, “I do not know.” “What!” screamed the Rebbe, “You don’t know? You pray under the same roof, you study the same texts, you serve the same God, you sing the same songs—and yet you dare tell me that you don’t know whether Moshe Yaakov is in good health, whether he needs help, advice or comforting?”
The Torah relates. “When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of his body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests.” (Leviticus 13:2) In ancient times the priest was both the religious and medical authority. He determined whether or not a person was infected with leprosy. The well-being of the community rested upon his determinations.
The mitzvah of visiting the sick, bikkur cholim, is incumbent upon all. Too often we rely on today’s priests. We seek out doctors. We call experts. We reach out to rabbis. But then we allow our mitzvah, our duty, to become professionalized. The Talmud suggests that visiting the sick is considered a religious duty without limit. A person is rewarded both in this world and in the world to come for performing it. (Shabbat 127a)
Still we resist, thinking to ourselves, “It is better left to professionals.” Thousands of years ago the rabbis upended our reliance on priests. They argued, who better to lift someone’s spirits and offer words of comfort and encouragement than a friend. This is why, despite its extraordinary difficulty, they ruled that bikkur cholim is an obligation all must carry.
We live in a highly professionalized society. Expertise is cherished. It is sought after when facing life’s greatest challenges. We also live in a personalized world where the individual and his or her rights and feelings are most prized. Judaism stands in opposition to this contemporary ethos. Judaism chooses instead the community. All must shoulder caring for the sick. Judaism counsels: you must never go it alone. To allow someone to be alone at this time of need would be a community’s greatest failure.
There will come a day when each of us will face illness, when we will confront the sickness of a spouse or the disease of a family member. No ritual, no pill, can offer complete protection. While our souls might be capable of achieving wholeness, our bodies can never be made perfect. We can promise each other this instead. We must never allow people to feel that they should stand outside the community, to feel that at their time of greatest need they are most isolated. We must pledge to never allow a friend to keep their illness a private affair and shoulder it alone.
The Talmud counsels: Whoever visits a sick person helps him or her to recover. (Nedarim 40a)
We are always stronger together. No one should ever be alone.
Never alone! Always together!