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How Should We Visit the Sick? #705

12/17/2021 06:05:40 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashah Vayechi
"When Jacob was told, ‘Your son Joseph has come to see you,’ he summoned his strength and sat up in bed.” (Genesis 48:2)

How Should We Visit the Sick?

For almost 12 weeks we’ve been reading individual stories about our ancient ancestors. This week for the first time the Torah turns its attention to a topic that, like it or not, will affect each of us.


And it does so with beauty, respect and dignity.

We are now approaching the end of the Book of Genesis. It began with the story of creation, and this week ends with the illness and passing of Jacob — one of the Torah’s most significant characters.

The first book of the Torah has been full of intrigue, complex family dynamics and life lessons. But, in the words of songwriter George Harrison, “All things must pass.”

As this week’s Torah portion opens, Joseph, now Egypt’s head of state, receives word that his father is gravely ill. To date, no one in the bible has been described as sick.

To this point, we have witnessed the death of many biblical characters. But as is often the case when we receive a shiva notice, we only learn of someone’s illness after they pass away.

As the 9th Century Sage, Rabbi Eliezer, notes: The Torah has — to this point — never mentioned sickness. As far as we know, he reflects, “Since the world was created, no one had ever survived a sneeze.”

Yet, here we are, the Talmud notes, dealing with sickness for the first time.

Perhaps Joseph had been too busy to keep track of his father’s health. Perhaps like many parents, Jacob sought to keep his declining health a private matter.

Either way, as this week’s parashah opens, we are transported to the threshold of Jacob’s room, where we are taught an important life lesson about the proper way to visit and comfort someone who is ill.

We ask permission before entering.

The Torah tells us, “When Jacob was told, ‘Your son Joseph has come to see you,’ he summoned his strength and sat up in bed.” (Genesis 48:2)

Our Sages comment upon this incredibly respectful and considerate act. Notes the Etz Chaim biblical commentary: “One should never enter the room of a sick or elderly person unannounced, lest they be embarrassed, indisposed or not fit to receive visitors.”

Indeed, the mitzvah of bikkur cholim, visiting the sick, is one of the most important within all of Judaism. The Talmud regards it as one of the most “godly” acts we can perform.

But as is often the case when we perform a mitzvah — whether it involves charity, assisting someone in need, or in this case, visiting a relative or friend who is sick — we need to ensure that our intention is matched with consideration of the recipients’ needs.

Those who have ever been hospitalized or home bound can attest to the fact that we are not always in a position to receive visitors.

Sometimes, we need a few moments to prepare. Perhaps we are disheveled or unknowingly exposed. Perhaps we are in the process of eating or otherwise indisposed.

Our Sages say that Joseph put these simple considerations into practice, as he paused before entering. 

It inspires us in the performance of all mitzvoth to listen first with our hearts, and then act.

By extension, it also encourages us to consider, as we perform a mitzvah, whether our timing is right — and whether our presence can be of help.

Joseph, in this week’s Torah portion, asks for permission to enter his father’s chamber, and thus provides his father with the opportunity to “sit up” and receive his son with dignity.

I was reading more about bikkur cholim as I reflected upon week’s Torah portion. Although we have been restricted due to Covid with regard to comforting those who are ill, there are some dos and don’ts that can enable us to elevate the sacred practice of bikkur cholim.

According to the verwellhealth website, when we visit someone who is ill, we are encouraged to:

  • Ask for permission to visit
  • Turn off our cell phone
  • Keep the visit short
  • Wash our hands
  • Consider allergies and restrictions on decorations and gifts
  • Leave, if a doctor or provider arrives.

The website also lists some of the don’ts.

  • Don't visit if our presence will cause stress or anxiety
  • Don't take food unless we know the patient can tolerate it
  • Don't enter if we have any symptoms that could be contagious
  • Don't expect the patient to entertain us.

Judaism places a high value on uplifting those who are ill.  The mitzvah reinforces that relationships, connections and love remain intact — even during illness. And these connections await a person’s recovery.

Joseph’s visit ultimately boosts Jacob’s spirits, so much so that he subsequently receives additional visitors and provides blessings to his other 11 sons and two Egyptian-born grandsons.

He is elevated. He feels connected.

And so should it be for all of us as we harness the power of bikkur cholim.

What a beautiful and considerate act Joseph performs at the start of this week’s parashah. He puts the brakes on his own immediate needs, in order to elevate the dignity of his father.

It’s an important example as we strive to direct our mitzvot toward sacred and effective outcomes.

This week, Joseph reminds us that it is always good to pause before entering, and ask the questions:

“Is my timing right? Is my mitzvah welcome?”

And in so doing, we work in partnership with God to repair this often-fractured world, one soul, one visit, one mitzvah, one act of kindness at a time.

And where do we begin? As Joseph inspires us to consider this week, we start by placing the dignity of others first.

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman


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