I recently visited a hospital patient, an elderly gentleman with a name, a gaze and a life story from the old country. His deterioration had advanced to the stage of inhibiting verbal communication, so he spoke to me instead through gestures, nods and stares. But slowly, we drew closer. We shared sorrow, distress and worry. Eventually, exhausted, he told me he wanted to get some rest. I recited the “Shema” for him, and he closed his eyes in fatigue.
When a person is sick, the medical profession cares for the body with medicines, surgeries, therapy and machines. But who cares for the soul? And how? Each one of us has witnessed illness. We’ve been tortured as we’ve watched illness or injury diminish the vitality of loved ones. We’ve sat by helplessly, wanting to help, bereft of miracles.
What tools of the spirit do we have to apply toward healing?
To this question, our tradition offers two types of answers.
First, we learn to take action — to aid the healing by attendance. We go to the sick person and sit at the bedside, offering the best get-well gift we have: presence. Jewish tradition calls this healing art bikkur cholim, visiting the sick. The rabbis of the Talmud discussed the life-giving power of human contact: “He who visits the sick causes him to live. But he who does not visit the sick causes him to die.” We intuitively understand this wisdom: physical life and death are not in our hands. But our decision to be present — or to be absent — might mean the difference between spiritual life and death, between hope and despair, between glimmers of light and shrouds of darkness for the one in the sickbed.
Bikkur cholim is so significant that scholars throughout the ages have written of it as a legal obligation, complete with dos and don’ts. Moses Maimonides, the great medieval codifier of Jewish law, outlined the details: for example, everyone, regardless of status, must visit the ill; visits should only begin after the third day of an illness and only in the middle part of the day; and the visitor should not sit in a place that forces the patient to adjust his or her head to view the visitor.
Why such careful, almost rigid details? Because we know the spiritual power of physical presence. And we want to make it positive, effective, healthy.
But there is another spiritual tool available to us: we learn to ask God for help. We seek healing through prayer. Instead of turning toward the patient, we turn to the Divine. The Psalms are filled with passionate, emotional models of prayer, words we might ourselves have spoken in our own moments of desperation: “My eyes deteriorate from this illness. I call to You, God, every day. I stretch out my hands to You (Psalms 88).” Prayer expresses pain; it voices our pleas for help. Prayer beseeches God for divine intervention, particularly when human intervention appears to be failing. We have all reached that point. We have turned not only outward, but also upward.
There is an afflicted and distressed sick woman in this week’s Torah portion. It is Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron. Her illness is terrible; it is debilitating, dangerous and terrifying. And Moses, in his shock and pain, offers us a third Jewish response when witnessing a sickness: he looks toward heaven and simply screams. Moses expresses himself in five simple words: “Please God, please heal her.” No long-term planning, no eloquent speeches, no philosophizing. He gives voice to his own distress. At that moment, Moses is us — the caregiver — in sickroom desperation, searching body and soul for a lifeline.
The Talmud tells of Rabbi Yochanan, who had magical, healing hands. He too was a caregiver. But when the rabbi himself became ill, his hands were of no help. “The prisoner,” the Talmud explains, “cannot free himself from prison.” As I learned in that hospital room and as we learn from Miriam and Moses, healing comes from extending our hands — and spirits — to each other and to God, and from asking for the healing hands of others in our own hours of need.