Image: President Obama visits a shooting victim in 2012. Photo by Pete Souza via Wikimedia.
Visiting the sick [bikur cholim] is the mitzvah that everyone knows about and too few of us actually observe. We learn about this commandment by example: when Abraham was recovering from his DIY bris, God went to visit him (Genesis 18.) Later in the Torah, we are commanded:
And you shall walk in [God’s] ways – Deuteronomy 28:6.
Maimonides, a physician, saw the mitzvah of visiting the sick in the commandment:
You shall love your fellow as yourself. – Leviticus 19:18.
As with any challenging mitzvah, the tradition gives us many guidelines about it. Some advice from the tradition:
- The patient who gets few visitors should be our first priority. Someone who gets lots of visitors is not in as great a need.
- Check ahead of time to see if a visit is welcome at this time. Not every sick person wants or needs visitors.
- Do not bring bad news to a sick person. We should leave our own sorrows or misgivings at the door.
- We should listen more that we talk, because we may get clues to other needs.
- Unless we have a medical degree (I don’t – do you?) we should not second guess the physicians or make medical suggestions. Undermining a patient’s faith in their physician can be extremely harmful.
- Be aware of the needs and wishes of the sick person. Better to leave a little too soon than to overstay your welcome.
- When a visit in person isn’t possible a phone call or similar contact may still be possible.
Some may ask, what DO I talk about on a visit to a sick person? Here are some ideas:
- Ask, “How’s it going?” and then sit quietly and let them talk.
- Ask, “Is there anything you wish you had here?” and listen to the answer.
- Ask, “Are there messages you’d like me to give anyone?” and listen.
- Ask, “Can I do anything for you / get something for you right this minute?”
- Bring good wishes from another person who is unable to visit.
The goal is to lighten the isolation that often comes with sickness. Especially in a hospital setting, the sick person often is subjected to tests and poking on the hospital’s schedule. Letting them boss you around (“fluff my pillow?” “get me a glass of water?”) can be a tremendous gift.
One other thing: In all sickroom settings but especially in the hospital, germs lurk that can be terribly harmful to the sick person and to others. WASH YOUR HANDS – before a visit, after a visit, after touching elevator buttons, after the bathroom, after touching anything in the sickroom. Hand sanitizer is better than nothing, but there’s no substitute for a 20 second scrub with soap and water!
While there is no blessing to say when visiting the sick, there is a blessing for the washing of hands:
Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, asher kideshanu b’mitzvotav, vitzivanu al netilat yadaim.
Blessed are You, Eternal, Ruler of Time-and-Space, who sanctifies us with mitzvot and commands us to wash our hands.
While this blessing originally was for the ritual washing of hands connected with sacrifices and meals, I like to use it to sanctify the act of preserving life via handwashing. Some other authorities may differ with me on this, but I believe it is so important to wash my hands carefully in a sickroom setting that it merits the blessing. (For more about the mitzvah of hand washing, read the article about it in My Jewish Learning.)