As you may have noticed, I’m not a big fan of taking time off. I will be the first to admit that my idea of having a baby seven weeks before Rosh Hashanah was a little bit crazy, but being at work, being with our community, is what I need. While I love spending the days in my PJs or yoga pants snuggling up with sweet Matan, one thing I learned from Shiri’s birth was that I really, truly enjoyed being with community. I tend to get restless and crave interaction with other humans, besides the human who is with me virtually nonstop. It made me all the more grateful in the subsequent weeks when I started to get visitors.
We seem to have a default quarantine policy, whether we’re conscious of it or not. Of course in some cases there’s good reason for it. At camp when someone is diagnosed with something like H1N1 or lice, they might be isolated from the community to stop the contagion. But isolation also comes with the risk of being cut off in an emotional and spiritual sense from the human contact we all need.
Even when there’s no contagious infection – like a cancer patient who goes to the hospital alone, too afraid to ask for help, or a pregnant woman on bed-rest until labor commences – we tend to think of these people as untouchable. Perhaps we send flowers, a balloon, or a note, but that’s generally where it stops. We take the first step to make contact, but stop at human, face-to-face interaction.
The reason I bring this up on Yom Kippur is because as we are thinking about the ways we could have made it a better 5776, I wanted to suggest an action item for your 5777. Something important, yet very doable. On Rosh Hashanah I spoke about how we refresh a little bit of ourselves every year. And today I thought it might be helpful to offer one specific way to refresh not only our own lives, but those close to us as well.
Why is it our nature as human beings to want to help in some circumstances and to feel helpless and uncomfortable in others? This may be the very reason there are a number of mitzvot, communal standards of practice established in the Torah, that require us to move past our own discomfort and truly reach out to complete the community. One of the most prominent is Bikur cholim. This imperative to visit the sick seems like a simple, self-evident, obvious instruction, and yet so many in our communities remain alone in their suffering.
In Bereshit Abraham goes through many different life challenges: he leaves the only land he knows, he gets married, and he follows this God he has never really seen. Among all the interactions Abraham has with God, we don’t really get the sense that God is present, supporting him, except for one interaction, Bikur cholim. Here’s the passage in Genesis:
And Abraham was ninety years old and nine, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. In the same day was Abraham circumcised, and Ishmael his son. And all the men of his house, born in the house, and bought with money from the stranger, were circumcised with him. And the Lord appeared to him in the plains of Mamre; and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day.
Abraham goes through an intimate and fairly painful procedure, and the next thing we learn is that he had a visitor. By visiting Abraham to distract him from the pain of recovering from circumcision, God provides us with this prime, often-cited example of the mitzvah of visiting the sick.
Let’s be clear. God is God, right? So couldn’t God have taken away the pain? Or sped up the recovery time? No, instead God chooses to model behavior, to lead by example. When you go visit someone who is ill, your visit may not measurably alter the course of the illness, but the knowledge that you care may ease their suffering and discomfort. Human presence doesn’t have the same impact as an antibiotic, but conversation and interaction can alleviate stress and dispel any fears that the person suffering somehow deserved it. It wasn’t that God was healing Abraham directly, but instead showing Abraham he was not alone.
When I was a senior in high school my father had emergency bowel resection surgery for his Crohn’s disease. He was rushed to the hospital and required a multi-night stay. I loved my father more than anything, and yet the one thing I could not get myself to do was to go visit him. After seeing my grandparents with tubes in their bodies and having to say goodbye to them, I associated hospitals with death, with sadness. I couldn’t go, I was paralyzed with fear. It wasn’t that I didn’t love my father; it was that I was scared, I was stuck in my head. I despised going to the hospital because I was afraid of the unknown. Over the years and through many actual hospital visits, I realized that by keeping myself away initially, I certainly didn’t worsen his condition, but I withheld from my dad the medicine that I was able to offer, human interaction.
A few years before he passed away, I had a heart to heart with my dad. He wasn’t a well man, but none of his health challenges were contagious. He spent the better part of his last year on this earth in and out of the hospital and the rehab facility. Between the hospital, rehab, and home, he had a lot of time alone to think about the world. He told me he spoke to God, he prayed, he read, but what was missing most was human contact. He felt alone because too many people were, like I was, paralyzed by our own complicated feelings.
Our Torah text does not say that God came to visit Abraham when it was convenient; it says that God came to the door of the tent in the heat of the day. Not that heat was an issue for God, but it implies that this visit was a challenge; it was uncomfortable, but it was necessary. Abraham needed and deserved comfort. Our friends, family, and community deserve the same. And it may require you to go outside your comfort zone, into the heat of the day, or in our case, the rain.
The problem is even though this passage is a great illustration of Bikur cholim, there’s no real roadmap in the Torah for how to overcome our own obstacles and do it. Fortunately, we have Hillel for that.
Hillel, the wise, early rabbinic scholar said: “Do not separate yourself from the community, do not trust in yourself until the day of your death, do not judge your fellow until you have walked in their shoes, do not trust that something will be understood in the end if it is not clear in the moment, and do not say that when you have time you will learn, lest you never have the time.” I will admit, it doesn’t quite fit as nicely on a throw pillow as “If not now, when?” but it does a great job summarizing our plan of action. Let’s break it down.
Do not separate yourself from the community. This can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Hillel recognized that community is essential in making sure a person feels supported and truly is supported. At the same time, this might suggest a community is to be together; if someone cannot come to the community but wants to be there, perhaps the community has an obligation to go to them.
It’s pretty clear what this woman was feeling in her time of need. As a community and as individuals it is our duty to stay connected, even if we need a little push to do so. Bikur cholim, visiting the sick, isn’t just helpful to the sick person. It’s imperative to making sure that our community exists, that it remains whole. When someone is sick, it is easy to withdraw, making the community less than whole. It is our obligation to support them, to make sure that our community is supportive, embracing, there.
Do not judge your fellow until you have walked in their shoes. At its core, this portion of the teaching is really about understanding the difference between someone’s needs and your own interpretation of someone’s needs. Maybe a visitor isn’t always in someone’s best interest. Sometimes the greatest need is a little privacy. Or perhaps the company is helpful, but only for talking about anything other than the illness. Or maybe the most helpful thing you can do is provide the comfort of simply sitting in silence together with a friend or family member.
The other side of that coin? Do not trust that something will be understood in the end if it is not clear in the moment. As much as we want to swoop in and solve every last problem or pain point, part of the responsibility belongs to those we are helping. It may sound counterintuitive to have to rely on the person facing the illness, but a support team isn’t made up of mind readers.
When you’re the one in need, it’s often up to you to find a way to share those needs. Be specific when you ask for help, and it will ease the stress for everyone involved. The community wants to support you, but they may not know exactly how. Tell them. Otherwise you’ll be stuck hearing that least helpful of statements, “If you need something, let me know.” Of course they need something, that’s why you’re there. Even if it’s just setting up a time to play a board game, offer something specific. Can I go grocery shopping for you? Can I watch your kids? Do you need me to order something online or pick up something from the library?
A cancer research organization in the UK posted a great discussion in their online forum last year. It’s called “12 things to never say to someone who has cancer.” What’s so shocking when you hear these is that they simultaneously sound like innocent statements of concern and also callous, mindless platitudes. And obviously you could substitute the mention of cancer for another illness or struggle, and we would all be guilty of using these phrases at some point.
Here are a few from the list that are worth repeating. Number one: “That’s a good cancer to have.” As if there are good cancers and bad cancers. Number six: “You’re so brave.” I didn’t know cancer was a thrill sport like skydiving. Number eight: “If anyone can beat this, you can.” Right, because clearly anyone who didn’t beat it simply wasn’t trying hard enough. And number ten: “I know how you feel.” No, there’s a pretty good chance you don’t.
The rest of the post offers a few helpful suggestions for what to say instead, and they fit perfectly in line with the idea of being as clear as possible in the moment. Instead, you could say, “Do you need a ride?” “Would you like to borrow the first two seasons of Veep?” Or even “I don’t really know what to say, but I’m available to come spend time with you tomorrow afternoon.”
Finally, do not say that when you have time you will learn, lest you never have the time. This line perhaps speaks to me the most. Whatever it is, do not put it off. Do not say when you have time you will visit someone because chances are you will never make the time. Bikur cholim is a mitzvah that requires intention, it requires making the time to go. It requires making it a habit.
As a community, we have these habits we fall into. We wish each other a shanah tova every year and a Shabbat shalom every week. We send emails, we bake cookies, we donate money – these are all wonderful habits. Why not add to that list visiting someone in need? Why not go one step beyond noticing when someone isn’t in their usual seat, and call that person?
As Hillel reminds us, these are individual choices we make. Will you separate yourself from the community or keep people close? Will you be quick to judge or will you withhold judgment until you understand fully what someone is going through? Will you offer vague, not-so-helpful reassurances that only make you feel better, or will you ask in specific terms how you can help? Will you put it off because you’re uncomfortable or will you do it today?
Start your year off right. In a few moments we will begin Yizkor, that sacred time when we call to mind the memories and legacies of our loved ones who are no longer on this earth. There is a tradition of leaving this space if your parents are still living, but that message is the opposite of what community is for. Consider, if you will, taking the first step towards being there for your community by making a choice to stay, support, and comfort the mourners.
I know this kind of active exercise in community building that we call Bikur cholim is asking a lot. I don’t take that lightly. But I want us to push each other to be physically present for each other. And I’m not suggesting we stop the more indirect outreach. We still need the prayer. We still need a Mi Sheberach. We still need a “thinking of you.” But 5777 will be a better year toward a better life because we were present in all ways possible. Even in the heat of the day.