GOOD MORNING! Many years ago I went to the hospital to visit a Haitian friend of mine who was very ill. Unfortunately, my friend was more or less indigent and his only option for medical care was the public hospital. Thankfully, this hospital never turned people away or refused to provide service to those who lacked the funds to pay them.
The downside, of course, was that the quality of care was on a significantly lower level than typical hospital care. At that time, most of the indigent patients were kept in a very large room lined with rows of hospital beds and there was a much lower ratio of doctors and nurses to patients than one would find in a typical hospital setting. After half an hour, I noticed that the nurses were beginning to pay a lot more attention to my friend and he remarked that they were attending to him more frequently.
I then realized that a rabbi coming to visit a black patient, and showing significant interest in him, had actually helped humanize the situation – somebody cared about this person. I started to ask the nurses questions and I spoke to the doctor who was on the floor at the time. My friend was so appreciative of my care and concern, and the resulting increased medical attention, that tears of gratitude welled in his eyes. I had visited people in the hospital countless times, but this was the first time I felt that I had made a substantive contribution through my visit.
The Torah obligation of visiting the sick, known as bikur cholim, falls under the category gemilut hasadim – doing acts of loving-kindness. Fulfilling this mitzvah involves tending to both the physical and spiritual needs of those who are ill, and doing what one can to assuage their ailments. But there are different types of bikur cholim and in this week’s column I want to explore some of them.
One of the greatest tragedies of the coronavirus wasn’t just the fact that millions died, but what compounded the misery, particularly in the first year of the virus, was that hundreds of thousands of people died alone. Who can forget the images of the brave nurses and medical teams, dressed in full PPE gear holding phones or iPads for families to tearfully say good-bye to their loved ones? It was heart wrenching.
On a lighter note, I’m of course reminded of a joke. A man feels very ill upon returning to the U.S. from a trip abroad. He goes to see his doctor and is immediately rushed to the hospital to undergo a barrage of extensive tests. The man wakes up after the tests in a private room at the hospital, and the phone by his bed rings. “This is your doctor. We’ve got the results back from your tests, and we’ve found you have an exceptionally dangerous virus that is extremely contagious!” “Oh my gosh,” cries the man in a panic, “What are you going to do?!”
“Well, we’re going to put you on a diet of pizzas, pancakes, and quesadillas.” “Will that cure me?” asked the man hopefully. The doctor replied, “No…but it’s the only food we can get under the door.”
This week’s Torah portion is named Korach after Moses’ cousin who, according to our sages, was annoyed at being passed over for the position of high priest. Korach’s contention was that Moses had appointed his brother Aaron as high priest on his own, and that he hadn’t been told by God to do so. Korach actually succeeded in convincing a few hundred people that Aaron should not be the only one to serve as the high priest and instigated a mutinous insurrection.
Needless to say, Moses was greatly distressed by this claim of inappropriate bias and the subsequent mutiny. He devised a test as only the worthy could bring an incense offering. Moses demanded a public sign from the Almighty to prove that he was in the right and that Korach and his men were wrong. Long story short: good guys won, bad guys lost (i.e. Korach and his mutinous cronies die a gruesome death and Aaron retained the title). This is part of Moses’ pleading to the Almighty:
“If these die like the death of all men, and the destiny of all men is visited upon them, then it is not God that has sent me” (Numbers 16:30).
Moses meant that if the mutinous group that challenged his authority should die a natural death (i.e. die on their deathbeds in a natural manner) then they are right and he is wrong; but, if they should die in an unusual manner (e.g. the earth swallows them up – which it did) then he is right and they are wrong.
A little-known fact about this week’s Torah reading is that the Talmud (Nedarim 39b) uses the above statement by Moses (“and the destiny of all men is visited upon them”) as a source for the obligation of bikur cholim – visiting the ill.
In other words, Moses was adding to the test of their “natural death” whether or not people would come to visit them while they lay on their deathbeds. This teaching, extrapolated from the text, is difficult to understand; what possible reason could Moses have to add this concept of bikur cholim as a critical component of what constitutes a natural death? What does visiting the sick have to do with this conflict?
We also find a different passage in the Talmud (Sotah 14a), one that is far more well-known, that derives the obligation of bikur cholim from the fact that God visited Abraham on the third day after his circumcision. The Talmud explains that we are obligated to follow in the path that God has laid out for us; just as He visited the sick so must we. Why do we need to add yet another source for bikur cholim?
There are two types of visits to the sick, each with its own distinct purpose and responsibility. The first type is similar to when God went to visit with Abraham and was there to help support him while he was in pain recovering from his circumcision. One element of visiting the ill is to help the person recover, whether it is in easing the burden of their suffering or helping with their care, as in my experience many years ago. This was the type of bikur cholim that the Almighty engaged in when visiting Abraham and that we are obligated to emulate: Helping to relieve an ill person’s pain and easing their recovery.
However, there is another kind of affliction, the kind that one does not recover from. A patient who is terminally ill requires a totally different type of bikur cholim. Their suffering transcends physical pain; they also suffer the pain of nonexistence. One who is terminally ill is painfully aware that he is not going to recover and will shortly leave this world. Most people spend their entire lives actively ignoring the fact that at some point they will no longer be on this earth. A person that is terminally ill begins to confront this reality in a very real way.
The only way to ease this kind of pain is to give meaning to their life. A person who is dying needs to know that their life made a difference. That is, they need to know that their existence made an impact and that there is something of them remaining even after they’re gone. The responsibility of this bikur cholim is to convey to the ailing that your own life has been changed by their existence. The way to do this is to give them a feeling of how much you feel connected to them and appreciate them, and let them know that, even though they will soon pass from this world, their existence mattered in a very real way.
This second type of bikur cholim is what Moses is referring to in this week’s Torah portion. Korach intended to create a division within the Jewish people. In fact, this division, or machlokes, becomes the quintessential example of “a dispute that is not for the sake of heaven” (Avos 5:20).
This is precisely why Moses added the criteria to the test of those collaborating with Korach to not be visited on their deathbeds. If people would go and visit with them and express how connected they felt to them before they passed, then Moses’ position that Korach was creating a terrible rift within the nation was obviously wrong.
Thus, God showed that Moses was in the right; He didn’t allow them to die peacefully at home surrounded by their friends and sympathizers. Rather they died a gruesome death – one that prevented them from being visited or comforted. This indicated that their true purpose was to create division and they were rightfully punished.
Korach, Numbers 16:1 – 18:32
There are two rebellions this week. First, Korach, a Levite, is passed over for the leadership of his tribe and challenges Moses over the position of high priest. No good rebellion can be “sold” as a means for personal gain, so Korach convinces 250 men of renown that they must stand up for a matter of principle – that each and every one of them has the right to the office of high priest (which Moses had announced that God had already designated his brother, Aaron, to serve).
Fascinatingly, all 250 followers of Korach accept Moses’ challenge to bring an offering of incense to see who God will choose to fill the one position. This meant that every man figured he would be the one out of 250 to not only be chosen, but to survive the ordeal. Moses announces that if the earth splits and swallows up the rebels it is a sign that he (Moses) is acting on God’s authority. And thus it happened!
The next day, the entire Israelite community rises in a second rebellion and complains to Moses, “You have killed God’s people!” The Almighty brings a plague that kills 14,700 people and only stops when Aaron offers an incense offering.
To settle the question once and for all, Moses has the head of each tribe bring a staff with his name on it. The next morning only Aaron’s staff had blossomed and brought forth almonds. The people were shown this sign. Aaron’s staff was placed in front of the curtain of the ark as testimony for all time.
It’s no longer a question of staying healthy. It’s a question of choosing a sickness you like.
— Jackie Mason
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