Doing God’s Work: Visiting the Sick

As one man learns, comforting the afflicted or dying is a tough but vital ministry

“When will the Messiah come?”

“Go and ask him yourself.”

“Where can I find him?”

“At the gates of Rome.”

“By what signs will I recognize him?”

“He is sitting among the poor and the suffering sick.”

— The Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a)

Most of us have had the unfortunate experience of knowing someone who is ill, sometimes seriously so. For those with terrible illnesses such as cancer, we ourselves may face personal challenges about what to do.

On the one hand, we want to be there for the person we love. On the other hand, visiting the sick is frightening — especially someone who may be terminal — for it puts us in proximity of death.

One of the most important mitzvot, or commandments, in Judaism is called Bikur Cholim, or “visiting the sick.” The idea has three components.

1.) Visit those who are sick to provide the practical supplies or chores they may need done in their home, or to take them to the doctor.

2.) Talk to them, listen to them, strengthen them, calm them. Sometimes it is merely your presence alone that gives comfort.

3.) Pray for their recovery. Jews do not consider the mitzvah to be fulfilled without a prayer.

Related: Asking God’s Guidance in Tough Times

Visiting the sick, however, is not just considered a commandment. It is considered one of the greatest good deeds that one can accomplish. It is so great that one who does so will not only “eat of the fruits of this world, but in the next.” What exactly does that mean?

Here is a personal story.

My good friend, Scott, was suffering from angiosarcoma, a very aggressive cancer with a high mortality rate. The prognosis was poor. He had three children, was divorced but was with a wonderful young woman who made him happier than I could ever recall.

Though I asked to visit him, secretly I was terrified. I had avoided being in proximity with death all my life, and only one person I know has ever died, except for elderly relatives.

“Tell him what he’s meant to you. This is a great mitzvah you are doing, and a gift of extraordinary generosity for him.”

I was terrified what Scott would look like, what I would say — and most of all, how to say goodbye. For while I was visiting the sick, I also knew this was likely to be the last time I would see him.

For advice about what to do, I asked Rabbi Ed Feinstein at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California. Rabbi Feinstein, who has twice survived cancer, simply advised, “Tell him what he’s meant to you. This is a great mitzvah you are doing, and a gift of extraordinary generosity for him.”

So I flew to Minnesota with no idea what to do other than having those words to say.

I saw Scott and his girlfriend for dinner. He updated me on the situation. He didn’t look any different, but I could tell he was scared. I offered humor, as my life was (and is) often so wacky that the stories always made him laugh.

The next day we sat with his friend, Mary, and he asked what should be said for his eulogy. I realized God had provided this moment for both of us. Scott could have asked this of anyone, but he asked it of me, of his girlfriend, and of Mary.

Related: Faith Fills the House

“It should be a celebration of your life,” I said.

This gave me the opportunity to tell him what he meant to me. It brought us both to tears. Scott was a stoic man, not prone to showing emotion, and yet we wept together in an embrace.

The following night I saw him again for dinner, and then dropped him off at his condo. He thanked me for the visit, said it meant a lot to him, walked into his garage — and I never saw him again.

Your presence will comfort the sick. You, in turn, will become more present in your own life.

Yet this visit became a transformative event. I did eat the fruits of this life, and ever since that day, I have been far more aware and present in my waking hours than I ever had before. I find myself appreciative of every little thing, and this has made me ever more aware of God’s presence.

Every situation is different. Every person is different. The needs of each patient are different. Are there general thoughts or guidelines for visiting the sick — whether it be Jew or Gentile? The late Rabbi Harold Schulweis, Rabbi Feinstein’s mentor and himself a cancer survivor, offered these thoughts in an essay called “The Wounded Healer”:

“I have learned not to be so anxious to cheer up the patient. The healer who visits another human being has to withdraw into himself … [which] allows space for the patient. Self-withdrawal is difficult because we want to perform magic. I want to save you. But the healer must be modest. I must learn that I don’t have to perform miracles, I don’t have to snap the patient out of his mood, I don’t have to come with jokes or anecdotes or great globs of wisdom … What is needed from the visitation? Not wisdom, not cheer, not melancholy, not theology. Only presence.”

You will discover that “presence” becomes a powerful word in visiting the sick. Your presence will comfort the sick. You, in turn, will become more present in your own life.

Finally, you will discover that the presence of God exists between you and the patient, as you hold their hand.