Visiting the Sick
During World War II and the Korean War, my father served as the civilian Jewish chaplain at the sprawling army hospital at Valley Forge, not far from his pulpit in Pottstown. Every Wednesday he would walk its endless halls visiting wounded Jewish servicemen. On Thursday evenings he returned to conduct a prayer service for them accompanied by a few women from the synagogue sisterhood who had prepared a collation of kosher deli. No part of my father’s rabbinate gave him more satisfaction because no Jews ever needed him more than this pitiful refuse of military carnage. Their numbers were large and their condition often shattering. My father assuaged their pain with warmth, wisdom and faith. In 1918, as a teenager in the German army on the Western Front, he had witnessed the devastating brutality of mechanized warfare and the chaos of defeat. That experience brought him to choose the rabbinate while his empathy for victims of misfortune made him an ideal pastor. He turned the mitzvah of bikkur holim (visiting the sick) into a fine art.
What jogs my memory is a modest midrash of great moment on the opening word of this week’s parashah: “The Lord appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre” (18:1). Abraham, at the age of ninety-nine had just completed circumcising himself, his son, Ishmael and all the males of his household. A covenant needed an external sign. Circumcision would attest to the transgenerational commitment to live by God’s law. Given that setting, the midrash quoted by Rashi infers that God appeared for no other reason than “to visit the sick.”
Rabbi Menahem Kasher in his Torah Shlemah (ad loc.) conjectures that what prompted the midrash was the unconventional use of the verb “appeared”. Whenever the Torah speaks of God appearing to someone, the verb is always followed by a statement of direct address. In our case, the text records no remark made by God to Abraham. The appearance seems to be an end in itself. In the absence of any verbal communication, the midrash posits an act; God came to comfort Abraham as he was convalescing from his surgical ordeal.
In point of fact, however, the midrash is part of a larger theological agenda of a third century Palestinian Amora who lived in Sepphoris. Scripture commands: “Follow none but the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 13:5). Choosing to read the verse literally, Rabbi Hama Bar Hanina asks how are we to conceive of fulfilling this commandment? For, we know from elsewhere that “the Lord your God is a consuming fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24). To resolve the tension, R. Hama waxes metaphoric. We are not to follow God physically, but to imitate God’s ways. And then he proceeds to cull from the Torah four instances of God’s compassion. We are to clothe the naked as God clothed Adam and Eve before expelling them from Eden (Genesis 3:21). We are to visit the sick as God visited Abraham. We are to comfort those in mourning as God comforted Isaac after the death of his father Abraham (Genesis 25:11). And we are to provide proper burial to the dead as God buried Moses (Deuteronomy 34:6) (BT Sotah 14a).
The artful innocence of this midrash belies its profundity. First, the Rabbis do not do theology abstractly like philosophers but as exegetes who read their texts closely. A scriptural rub gives rise to a pearl. Second, they have a penchant for turning narrative into law. The thrust of the Torah to teach us how to live propels the Rabbis to extract maxims from stories. Finally, in going beyond the plain meaning of the text, the Rabbis attribute to an imageless God beyond form or matter the loftiest of human sentiments. As the arbiter of morality, God becomes the mirror of human nobility. To imitate God means to live by those values which the religious imagination deems worthy of God’s sanction.
In addition, the midrash affirms tenderly the priority of our interpersonal relationships, not just for the pious but for all Jews. The tragedy of modern Judaism in the emancipation era is that Jews eager to make it turned the rabbi into their religious surrogate. He now “conducted” decorous services that were once self-propelled for a passive congregation that came to be edified. The practice of Judaism was largely confined to the public space of the synagogue. As the edifice of the synagogue expanded, the scope of Judaism contracted, and the rabbi ended up as a relic of a full-bodied Judaism that had once been the sustenance of all Jews.
To visit the sick is not the exclusive duty of the rabbi. Nor is it a minor mitzvah. God does not appear in cameo. The midrash asserts the universal importance of dispensing the medication of love to those in need. Our presence at bedside and our prayers in the synagogue fortify the will to recover. Life is unsustainable when morale has withered. Nothing is more encouraging in the contemporary synagogue than the coming together of members into religious societies (havurot) with the specific purpose of visiting the sick or readying the dead for burial or attending to the needs of mourners. These humane tasks, and others, relieve suffering, build community and bring glory to God. Above all, they ennoble the lives of the participants who are truly living Jewishly.