Visiting the Sick: It’s a Mitzvah!

Bikkur cholim (bee-KOOR khoh-LEEM) is the mitzvah of visiting the sick. It’s one of those mitzvot from the to-do list in the morning service, those “obligations without a limit” that reward us both in this world, and in the world-to-come. Often we can become stuck between our wish to do a mitzvah, and our wish to be sensitive to the needs of the sick person.

Here are some things to do that will help:

  1. Cards and notes are always helpful. I had no idea how powerful a get-well card could be until I was the recipient. Cards and notes always arrive at a good time, and they never intrude. Especially for someone who is very sick or tired, they are a wonderful choice. You can send a get-well card even to someone you know only slightly, and it will still do them a world of good.
  2. In person visits can be powerful, if they are done properly. Some things to remember about in-person visits:
    1. Arrange the visit ahead of time. Call ahead, or use email to set a good time. Do not just “pop in” because you were “in the neighborhood.” 
    2. Keep visits short: 15 minutes tops, 5 minutes if the person is very sick or looks tired.
    3. Keep it low key. Bring good wishes and pleasant talk. Don’t be afraid of silence.
    4. Avoid medical discussion. Do not quiz the patient about the doctor or the diagnosis. Do not criticize or share medical stories. It can be very tempting to share knowledge, but it is more likely to do harm than to help.
    5. Avoid telling them how they should feel. They may be grateful to be alive, or furious to be sick. They may be angry with God, or full of blessings. Just meet them wherever they are, even if you are uncomfortable with their emotions. (Remember, you aren’t staying long, anyway.)
    6. Listen. The patient may want to talk about the medical situation. This can fill many needs. If something sounds “off,” suggest that they talk about it with their doctor. Again, don’t offer diagnoses or advice.
    7. Offer help, but take direction. It is great to offer to water flowers or do small tasks, but if the patient says, “no,” honor their wishes. One aspect of illness is helplessness: don’t make them feel more helpless by disregarding their boundaries.
    8. Appropriate touch can be wonderful. The touch of your hand on theirs can be very healing, if it is possible. Touching other body parts can be intrusive, however.
    9. Offer prayer. With many Jews, this may take the form of wishing them a “Refuah Shleimah” [a complete healing] without any explicit reference to prayer. However, if they want to pray and you are up for it, go ahead. Again, be sensitive to their comfort.
  3. Other ways to help a sick person:
    1. Check in with caregivers. Do they need help or support? Often the caregiver can tell you ways you can help or errands you can run. Remember to support them, not lean on them.  Do not burden the caretaker with your fears or misgivings. Do not tell them what to do, or how to do things differently.
    2. Make sure the rabbi knows that this person is sick. Unfortunately, HIPPA laws in the US make it impossible for hospitals to notify the rabbi when a congregant is ill. The rabbi will want to know! Call and tell them.
    3. Make a donation in the sick person’s honor to synagogue or charity. Especially in a long illness, this can help connect them with the outside world.

One sure thing: all of us get sick sometimes, even the healthiest people. Whether it is a small temporary thing or a life-threatening illness, or a chronic trouble that goes on for years, human contact can provide relief and strength. The Torah and our tradition put a high value on bikkur cholim precisely because it can make such a difference in the quality of a person’s life.

It happened that one of Rabbi Akiva’s pupils became ill, and the Rabbis did not come to visit him. But Rabbi Akiva did visit him, and because Rabbi Akiva swept and sprinkled the floor before him, he lived. The sick man said to him: “Master, you have given me new life!” – Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 40a

Lost in the Service?

At Mi Shebeirach, about 4,000 people whispered to their neighbor “I don’t know this one”

Rabbi Mike Harvey @Island_Rabbi, November 7, 2015

This is a tweet from Rabbi Mike Harvey, who was attending the Union for Reform Judaism Biennial Convention in Orlando, FL this past Shabbat. I loved this tweet because it communicates a great truth about attending services: in any given group, there will be some people who don’t know a particular prayer, or tune, or combination thereof.

The next time you are sitting in a service and you feel badly because you don’t know something, remember that you are not alone. A whole bunch of others in the congregation are lost, too: maybe not 4,000 of them, but plenty.

I have been going to services for a long time, and I have studied the services long and hard. Yet sometimes I will go to a new (to me) synagogue or service and I will be a little lost. I know generally where the service is going, but I may not know the tune that they “always” use at Synagogue Beit Yehudi, or I may not realize that they have a particular custom for a prayer. So I keep my eyes and ears open, and I learn. Occasionally I hope I will never encounter that tune again, but usually it’s nice to learn yet another way to sing Adon Olam.

Often students will come to me and say that they don’t go to services because they feel “stupid” in services. They don’t know the prayers or the tunes, and they are afraid everyone will know that they are new. Here are some thoughts about that:

  1. No one is born knowing how to daven [pray] the service. NO ONE.
  2. The only way to get better at services is to go to services.
  3. It’s perfectly OK to sit quietly and listen.
  4. It’s perfectly OK to hum along.
  5. No one will pay attention to how you pray, unless you sing very loudly off key or cross yourself.
  6. You have a right to be there, even if you never learn how to say anything in Hebrew.
  7. You have a right to be there, period.

So next time you are feeling lost in a service, think about Rabbi Harvey’s cogent observation. He was in a crowd of dedicated Reform Jews, and a huge number of them were unsure of themselves for a moment. Maybe it was a new tune. Maybe it was an experimental way of saying the Mi Shebeirach for the Sick. I have no idea. But I am so, so glad that he tweeted about it, because I get to pass that golden tweet along to you!

Image: U.S. Air Force Rabbi, Chaplain, Captain Sarah D. Schechter leads the evening Leil Shabbat service on Friday, Sept. 4, 2009 at Lackland Air Force Base’s Airman Memorial Chapel. Schechter was the first active duty female Rabbi in the Department of Defense. (U.S. Air Force photo/Lance Cheung)

URJ Takes a Stand on Transgender Rights

This past week the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) passed A Resolution on the Rights of Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming People. While a resolution is not binding on URJ congregations, it does set a standard for policy in URJ congregations. The URJ is the association of the 900 Reform congregations across North America, just as the CCAR is the association of Reform rabbis, and the ACC is the association of Reform cantors.

This is a landmark resolution. As the International Business Times reported, “It is the most comprehensive and extensive set of guidelines for transgender rights adopted by any major religious organization.”

The resolution addresses the very real concerns and needs of transgender and gender non-conforming members of our congregations and communities. I am sure that someone, somewhere, is saying that this is just the Reform movement being trendy, but the truth is that we have these members among our families and we need to serve them properly and with care for their dignity. We are also responsible as Jews to speak up for the disenfranchised and the oppressed in our larger society. All human beings are b’tzelem Elohim, made in the image of the Holy One. As such, there is no excuse, ever, for causing a person embarrassment, much less physical distress. Every human being has a right to physical safety and human dignity.

A resolution is not a revolution. It is likely that every congregation falls short in some aspect of the ideals enumerated below. It’s up to us to make teshuvah for past wrongs and to make the necessary adjustments in our social action, in our buildings, in our paperwork, in our classrooms, and in our language. We can do this.

I invite your feedback and discussion in the comments after you read the resolution. What do you like in it? What troubles you? What do you wish were there?


Resolution on the Rights of Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming People

Submitted by the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism


Throughout the Reform Movement’s history, we have worked tirelessly to fight discrimination, support equality, and strengthen the rights of minorities and women. In 1977, both the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis passed resolutions affirming “the rights of homosexuals.” We welcome and celebrate people of all sexual orientations in our congregations and oppose laws that fail to uphold principles of equality for all. North American culture and society have, in general, become increasingly accepting of people who are gay, lesbian and bisexual, yet too often transgender and gender non-conforming individuals are forced to live as second-class citizens.

“Transgender” is a term for people whose gender identity, expression or behavior is different from those typically associated with their assigned sex at birth. Gender non-conforming is a term for individuals whose gender expression is different from societal expectations related to gender.

Although much work remains to be done to fully overcome discrimination against lesbian, gay and bisexual people, members of the transgender and gender non-conforming communities face particular ongoing legal and cultural bigotry and discrimination. Transgender individuals are often unable to easily update their government documents, such as passports and birth certificates, in order to reflect their correct gender and name. As a result, transgender individuals can be denied the right to vote because their documents do not match their gender. In Canada, six provinces (Ontario, 20 Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, P.E.I., and Newfoundland) and one territory (Northwest 21 Territories) offer protections based on gender identity yet a federal bill has long been stalled in Parliament.1 In both the U.S. and Canada, transgender individuals experience frequent incidents of hate crimes and harassment, and often face discrimination in employment, healthcare and housing. Simply choosing their preferred pronoun or accessing facilities based on their gender identity without facing others’ objections or fearing violence can be a challenge for transgender and gender non-conforming individuals. The combined impact of all of these factors has contributed to higher than average poverty, homelessness and suicide rates among transgender people.23

Efforts within the Reform Movement over the past decade reflect our commitment to greater inclusivity of transgender and gender non-conforming people. In 2003, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion admitted its first openly transgender rabbinical student. Recently, both NFTY and URJ camps have taken steps to become more inclusive of transgender participants in their material, application forms, facilities and programs. In 2015, the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ Rabbinical Placement Commission updated its policies to require that congregations and other organizations seeking a rabbi commit to including in their search all candidates regardless of gender identity. The Reform Movement has also built partnerships with organizations like Keshet (, to create and improve resources for our congregations, institutions, affiliates and programs. Despite this important progress, there is more work to be done to make our Movement and our society fully inclusive of transgender and gender non-conforming people.

Two key Reform responsa highlight the imperative toward full inclusion of transgender people in accordance with Jewish tradition. A 1990 responsum (CCAR 5750.8) affirmed that being transgender alone is not a basis to deny someone conversion to Judaism. A 1978 responsum affirmed that a rabbi may officiate at the wedding of two Jews if one partner has transitioned to the gender with which they identify, as opposed to the one they were assigned at birth (“Marriage After a Sex-change Operation” in American Reform ResponsaVol. LXXXVIII, 1978, pp. 52-54). These responsa reflect biblical tradition that teaches us that all human beings are created b’tselem Elohim—in the Divine image. As it says in Genesis 1:27, “And God created humans in God’s image, in the image of God, God created them.” From this bedrock principle stems our commitment to defend any individual from the discrimination that arises from ignorance, fear, insensitivity, or hatred. Knowing that members of the transgender and gender non-conforming communities are often singled out for discrimination and even violence, we are reminded of the Torah’s injunction, “do not stand idly while your neighbor bleeds” (Leviticus 19:16).

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED THAT the Union for Reform Judaism:

  1. Affirms its commitment to the full equality, inclusion and acceptance of people of all gender identities and gender expressions;
  2. Affirms the right of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals to be referred to by their name, gender, and pronoun of preference in our congregations, camps, schools, and other Reform affiliated organizations;
  3. Encourages Reform congregations, congregants, clergy, camps, institutions and affiliates, including NFTY, to continue to advocate for the rights of people of all gender identities and gender expressions;
  4. Urges the adoption and implementation of legislation and policies that prevent discrimination based on gender identity and expression, and that require individuals to be treated equally under the law as the gender by which they identify. This includes establishing the right to change without undue burden their identification documents to reflect their gender and name and ensuring equal access to medical and social services;
  5. Calls on the U.S. and Canadian governments at all levels to review and revise all laws and policies to ensure full equality and protections for people of all gender identities and expressions;
  6. Urges Reform Movement institutions to begin or continue to work with local and national Jewish transgender, lesbian, gay and bisexual organizations to create inclusive and welcoming communities for people of all gender identities and expressions and to spread awareness and increase knowledge of issues related to gender identity and expression. These activities may include cultural competency trainings for religious school staff, the new congregational resource guide on transgender inclusion being created by the Religious Action Center, education programs on gender identity and expression, and sermons on the topic of gender identity and gender expression;
  7. Recommends URJ congregations and Reform Movement institutions, facilities and events ensure, to the extent feasible, the availability of gender-neutral restrooms and other physical site needs that ensure dignity and safety for transgender and gender non-conforming individuals;
  8. Urges Reform Movement institutions to review their use of language in prayers, forms and policies in an effort to ensure people of all gender identities and gender expressions are welcomed, included, accepted and respected. This includes developing statements of inclusion and/or non-discrimination policies pertaining to gender identity and gender expression, the use when feasible of gender-neutral language, and offering more than two gender options or eliminating the need to select a gender on forms; and
  9. Will work in collaboration with other Reform Movement institutions to create ritual, programmatic and educational materials that will empower such institutions to be more inclusive and welcoming of people of all gender identities and expressions.




Shabbat Shalom: “And Sarah Lived”

This Shabbat we read a very strange love story: Rebekah and Isaac, following the death of his mother Sarah. For some drashot (brief words of Torah) on those topics from past posts:

Rebekah, Woman of Contradictions

Romantic Comedy – In Genesis?

Sarah’s Choices

There are some wonderful divrei Torah available on the net. Here are some I’ve particularly liked:

What’s Your (Back) Story? (Howie Beigelman)

The Blessed Burden (Rabbi Menachem Creditor)

I Will Go (Rabbi Stephen Fuchs)

Have you seen a d’var Torah you particularly like on this parashah?

I wish you a Shabbat Shalom, a Sabbath of Peace!

Survey Results

The survey answers were fascinating – thank you to everyone who participated. If you are thinking, “Darn, I meant to participate!” you can still do so.

I’m glad that many of you learned about the search box (still there, to the right on your screen) and the drop down list of categories (now labeled “Menu of Topics.”) I’ve learned that simply hanging things out in the sidebar is not enough, but that a survey is a useful vehicle for publicizing features.

Thank you for the feedback on readability. This is a tricky one, because different screens and formats offer different experiences. I’m going to experiment with some changes in the near future. When I have a likely candidate, I will install it and ask for your feedback.

If you see another WordPress blog that you find more readable than this, please bring it to my attention. You can do that simply by emailing me or leaving a comment here with a link to the blog. 

Next, thank you for the topic suggestions. For most of this year I have tried to post daily, and I read between the lines that you like the frequent posting. The catch to that, of course, is that I have to write about something, and not everything that goes through my noggin is suitable for posting. Now I have a tidy little list of possibilities on my desk: Thank you!

I appreciate your partnership in this blog, and I particularly appreciate the civility of the comments. In several years, I have only had to delete a very few messages for rude or abusive content; not many bloggers are able to say that.

Finally, let me offer a little Torah to go with all our surveying:

Who is a fool? One who says, “Who can possibly cut down [this] entire field?” The wise person says, “I will cut two basketfuls today and two tonight and two tomorrow, until I’ve completed the whole task.” A foolish student will say, “Who can possibly learn the whole Torah? [The laws of] damages are thirty chapters, [the laws of] vessels are thirty chapters!” A wise student will say, “I will learn two laws today, and two tomorrow, until I have mastered the whole Torah. – Song of Songs Rabbah 5:11, translation CAJE

We are learning together here, bit by bit. Torah is not learned in a day. I appreciate the opportunity to learn with each of you.

Rebekah, Woman of Contradictions

When I was a little girl, there was an old Bible on the bookshelves at home. It wasn’t our family Bible. I don’t know why we had it, but I loved the pictures. To this day, some of my mental images of Bible stories are rooted in those pictures.

Rebekah, for me, will always be the young woman in “Rebecca et Eliézer” by Nicolas Poussin. Poussin was a 17th century French Baroque painter, and his simplest canvases teem with details. While some of those details are set by artistic convention (for one thing, the two protagonists seem to be meeting at a well in Italy, not in ancient Mesopotamia!) it’s clear that he read the story closely.

Eliezer is the only man in the picture. He is standing by the well and he gestures as he speaks to the young Rebekah.  It appears to be the moment at which he asks her if she will allow him a drink from the jug of water at her feet. Women are all around them, some pouring water, some of them gossiping among themselves, and some watching Eliezer and Rebekah with curiosity.

It is the moment just before Rebekah passes his test: in a moment, she will tell him to drink all he wants, and then she will offer to water his ten camels, just as he hoped she would do. In Jewish tradition, she is a role model for the mitzvah of kindness to animals, because she offered to water the thirsty camels of her own volition.

There’s a great deal that isn’t in the picture, of course. Eliezer still had to talk with Rebekah’s father Bethuel, and her brother Laban, who would give her son Jacob so much grief years later. Later, she would leave with Eliezer to travel hundreds of miles to meet Isaac and marry him.

Rebekah was a woman of contradictions. She had a soft heart for a thirsty stranger and his animals, yet later in life she would calmly deceive her husband and direct Jacob in defrauding Esau of his birthright. In fact, the Torah doesn’t tell us much more about her than those two stories.

As a little girl, I scrutinized Poussin’s painting for clues about Rebekah. She seemed to me to be excited to see a stranger. Maybe she was tired of living in one place. Perhaps she was curious about the world. Looking back, I realize that some of my response to her story and the picture was projection: I was curious about the world!

Where did you get your mental images of the characters in the Torah? Are there Biblical figures with whom you identify strongly? Do you know why they feel so close to you?

Torah portion Chayei Sarah may be found in Genesis 23.1-25.18.