Counting Our Blessings

For the week ending 15 May 2021 / 4 Sivan 5781

To Believe Is to Behave (Part 6)

by Rabbi Reuven Lauffer
Become a Supporter Library Library

To Believe Is to Behave (Part 6)
(Lailah Gifty Akita)

“These are the precepts whose fruits a person enjoys in this world, but whose principal remains intact in the World to Come. They are: honoring one’s parents; acts of kindness; early arrival at the study hall in the morning and the evening; hosting guests; visiting the sick; providing the wherewithal for a bride to marry; escorting the dead; praying with concentration; making peace between two people; and Torah study is the equivalent of them all.” (Tractate Shabbat 127a)

The fifth mitzvah is that of visiting the sick. So significant is this mitzvah that our Sages teach (Nedarim 39b) that when a person visits someone who is sick, they take away with them one-sixtieth of the sickness when they leave. Rabbi Menachem ben Shlomo Meiri, the brilliant thirteenth century Talmudist, explains that the patient enjoys their company so much that it makes them feel better than they did before the visit.

Not surprisingly, what our Sages knew two thousand years ago has become an integral part of understanding disease and trying to combat it in our modern world. For example, the research department at Johns Hopkins Medicine has published findings showing that people with a family history of heart disease, who also had a positive outlook, were one-third less likely to have a heart attack within five to twenty-five years than those with a more negative outlook. What makes this research even more startling is that the statistics remained unchanged even for those with a family history of heart disease. As part of the Johns Hopkins study, in order to reach their final conclusions, the research team created medical definitions of “positive” and “negative” which could be quantified. But, as the head of the research team put it, “You don’t need a survey to assess your own positivity. I think people tend to know how they are.”

A few lines later, on the next page, the Talmud relates that one of Rabbi Akiva's students fell ill and no one came to visit him. Rabbi Akiva, who was the leading Torah authority in his generation, came to see him. Rabbi Akiva saw that the conditions his student was being kept in were detrimental to his health. According to some accounts Rabbi Akiva himself improved the conditions, and according to other accounts he instructed household members to sweep the floor and sprinkle water over it to settle the dust. The student was revived after Rabbi Akiva’s visit, and was so overwhelmed with gratitude that he told Rabbi Akiva, “Rebbe, you have returned my life to me!” From this story it is possible to begin to appreciate the many positive consequences of visiting the sick. According to one opinion, when those looking after the sick student saw the esteem that Rabbi Akiva held him in, they immediately started to treat him with more respect and to tend more attentively to his needs.

In his ethical work titled Seder Hayom, Rabbi Yechiel Yehoshua Rabinowitz, the Rebbe of Biala, writes that visiting the sick is the highest form of kindness there is. As the Talmud teaches, it has no limits. The Rebbe adds that sometimes with encouraging and kind words, a visitor can revitalize an ill person to the point that the patient will tell everyone afterwards that because of the visit they now feel like a new person.

Undoubtedly, when done properly, visiting a sick person assists the patient and helps them find new strength to fight their illness. However, there is an additional dimension to this as well. Visiting the sick is also beneficial to the person who is doing the visiting. Too often we may take our good health for granted. We may just assume that we are supposed to be well. But when we visit someone whose health is not in the best of shape, it should serve as a reminder that good health is a delicate reality that can — and sometimes does — change in a moment. When we pay a sick call, we should use it as a means to remind ourselves that we should always be aware of where our good health comes from, and we should show our appreciation to the One who gives it to us.

  • To be continued…

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