Last week as I sat working in my study at the synagogue my daughter Gable called from the youth lounge (where she was working that day watching the kids) and with a worried tone told me that one of the kids who was hanging out in the lounge had mentioned that his grandmother was just taken to the emergency room in the hospital. He was not only worried about her but that his dad was out of town on business and so his mom had to deal with it on her own. Gable was calling to tell me because she knows from growing up on the home of a rabbi that I would want to call immediately and find out where the woman was, how we could help and any support we could be for her daughter. As a result of Gables call within a couple of hours Rabbi Lewart, Cantor Frenkel and I had all either called or visited the woman. And the next day when she called her mom’s hospital room to check on her, it was my wife, the rebbetzin who picked up the phone in the middle of one of her typical visits that can’t help bring a smile to anyone’s lips. A couple of months ago I got a frantic call from a woman at whose wedding I officiated two years ago telling me that her husband had been hit by a car while standing outside the DMV and was now in intensive care with one leg torn off in the accident and fighting for his life. “Could you come be her with us?” she asked. She called me because in the midst of her fear and emotional turmoil there was emotional and spiritual comfort in the thought of a rabbi being there to pray for them and hold their hands and help them through the most difficult trauma of their brief lives together. Yet over the next few weeks as I would come to visit each day and Bill started his road to physical recovery, I realized more than ever the profound wisdom of ancient Jewish tradition. For the rabbis of the Talmud taught two thousand years ago that each of us has the ability through the simplest of acts to be God’s messengers of hope, faith, strength, courage and healing to others. In this age of spiritual searching, where bookshelves are filled with books about “Angel sightings” and miraculous interventions, Judaism teaches that we can find an angel from God any time we want by simply looking in the mirror.
In fact the rabbis teach that it is our obligation to become an angel over and over again throughout our lives, through the simple act called BIKUR HOLIM, “Visiting the sick.” Throughout the weeks following Bill’s tragic accident I marveled at the remarkable transforming power of every single hospital visit, from every single friend, acquaintance, colleague, student (he was a high school baseball coach) and family member. Someone would walk into the room and Bill would know once again that he wasn’t abandoned, that he mattered to another human being, that he (and his wife) didn’t have to face the new challenges of his life alone.
BIKUR HOLIM is considered one of the single most important mitzvot in all of Jewish life by the rabbis of the Talmud, and as I watched Bill’s face brighten, his mood improve and the pace of his healing quicken through the attention, love and care he felt from those visitors, I realized just how wise the rabbis really were.
Every Friday afternoon Rabbi Lewart sits in her study and makes healing phone calls to those who are sick in our community, or shut in by illness of loss. She reads them poetry. She shares with them blessings. And she gives them hope, love and the gift of knowing they are not forgotten. It is yet another form of BIKUR HOLIM, of being an angel of God for the sick at heart.
This week’s Torah portion begins immediately after Abraham has agreed to enter an eternal covenant of the Jewish people with God by circumcising himself (at age 100) and all the males in his household. It begins with the words, “God appeared to him (as)…he was sitting at the entrance to the tent in the heat of the day. Looking up, he saw three men standing near him.”
The rabbis comment that first it says, “God appeared to him,” and then that he saw “three men standing near him.” God appeared to Abraham as he was recovering from the pain of his adult circumcision through the healing presence of three human beings who, according to rabbinic legend had come to fulfill the mitzvah of visiting the sick. In fact, it is from this very passage in the Torah that the Talmud draws its lesson that visiting the sick is so important that the very first thing that happened to the very first Jew was the act of BIKUR HOLIM. You never know the power of a simple visit.