VISITING THE SICK IN TIME OF PLAGUE

Friends: I have been asked to post texts that might help people spiritually in this virus crisis. I will attempt to do so. Here is part of the very famous discussion in the Babylonian Talmud 5b regarding illness.

TODAY'S TOPIC: VISITING THE SICK.

I have interspersed my comments with the Hebrew/Aramaic and English texts from Sepharia.org

There is much here. Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba is ill, and Rabbi Yohanan visits him. The visit itself helps to heal, not medically perhaps, but spiritually. A good bit of illness is an affliction of the spirit. Today we discuss such things in psychological terms. We say, "He's pretty down or up today." But it's clear that human contact is essential in restoring health in many instances. More on this in a bit.

רַבִּי חִיָּיא בַּר אַבָּא חֲלַשׁ. עָל לְגַבֵּיהּ רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן אֲמַר לֵיהּ: חֲבִיבִין עָלֶיךָ יִסּוּרִין? אֲמַר לֵיהּ: לֹא הֵן וְלֹא שְׂכָרָן. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: הַב לִי יְדָךְ. יְהַב לֵיהּ יְדֵיהּ, וְאוֹקְמֵיהּ.

The Gemara continues to address the issue of suffering and affliction: Rabbi Yoḥanan’s student, Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba, fell ill. Rabbi Yoḥanan entered to visit him, and said to him: Is your suffering dear to you? Do you desire to be ill and afflicted? Rabbi Ḥiyya said to him: I welcome neither this suffering nor its reward, as one who welcomes this suffering with love is rewarded. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: Give me your hand. Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba gave him his hand, and Rabbi Yoḥanan stood him up and restored him to health.

What does it mean, "Is your suffering dear to you?" Prior to most recent history, suffering was often considered a spiritual lesson. Kip Weiner (z"l), when he developed AIDS 30 years ago, said to me, "I never started to live until I got this." The lesson is clear. Illness, the loss of health and then, God willing, recovery, helps us to appreciate the many blessings in life: friendship, love, the depth of meaning of mere existence, connection to God or the divine spirit. We fritter these away all to frequently in our lives. But illness snaps us back to the core realities that sustain us in crisis.

רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן חֲלַשׁ. עָל לְגַבֵּיהּ רַבִּי חֲנִינָא. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: חֲבִיבִין עָלֶיךָ יִסּוּרִין? אֲמַר לֵיהּ: לֹא הֵן וְלֹא שְׂכָרָן. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: הַב לִי יְדָךְ. יְהַב לֵיהּ יְדֵיהּ, וְאוֹקְמֵיהּ.

Similarly, Rabbi Yoḥanan fell ill. Rabbi Ḥanina entered to visit him, and said to him: Is your suffering dear to you? Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: I welcome neither this suffering nor its reward. Rabbi Ḥanina said to him: Give me your hand. He gave him his hand, and Rabbi Ḥanina stood him up and restored him to health.

אַמַּאי, לוֹקִים רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן לְנַפְשֵׁיהּ?

The Gemara asks: Why did Rabbi Yoḥanan wait for Rabbi Ḥanina to restore him to health? If he was able to heal his student, let Rabbi Yoḥanan stand himself up.

אָמְרִי: אֵין חָבוּשׁ מַתִּיר עַצְמוֹ מִבֵּית הָאֲסוּרִים.

The Gemara answers, they say: A prisoner cannot generally free himself from prison, but depends on others to release him from his shackles.

The overall lesson is profound: we need the presence of meaningful others to heal us, to share our suffering and our day to day existence. It's not the great wisdom of our words that heals: it's the caring self. Just to sit with a sick person, to share their pain with your concern, helps to heal. The Talmud says it takes away 1/60 of the illness.

Obviously, there are three components to our problem. The first is caring enough to be a presence. We must find within ourselves the sincere, authentic caring for another human being's existential condition. Loving is the basis for much presence. But it's not loving exclusively. Our active concern for another human being's simple existence is enough to become a presence in their lives, if they permit.

The second problem is overcoming our reluctance. "Whom am I to lift up another person? I'm not Rabbi Yohanan." The truth is that we all have within us the humane capacity to listen, to hear another person's suffering, and to let that person know we care enough to be there with them. Get a glass of water for them. Watch a movie with them. Just sit and read with them. We risk rejection, a fear for many. What if s/he doesn't want me there? Simple solution: Ask! "May I stay with you?" Reach out. You'll likely be a great help. So many friends disappear in crisis A friend's presence heals.

And finally: this crisis is preventing presence! The physical cure, isolation, is in precise opposition to everything I am saying. "Before God sends the illness, God sends the cure," is an old aphorism. Perhaps for this very reason we have such great electronic tools to be present for someone else. Telephone conversations, Facetime, Facebook messenger, Skype, Zoom, Instagram, email -- so many means to connect our lives and be there for someone else. And the simple inquiry demonstrates to the other that their lives matter to you.

Whom can you call? With whom can you connect today?" Don't hesitate. Do it now! Now one is ever offended by concern. Just reach out, and remember, "A prisoner cannot generally free himself from prison, but depends on others to release him from his shackles."

TOMORROW'S TOPIC: HOLDING SEDERS IN TIMES OF PLAGUE. “And when trouble comes to a man, he must look to his deeds, and not only to those which concern him and the Almighty, but to those which concern himself, to his body, to his flesh, to his own health . . . There are times when one must turn aside from the Law, if by so doing a whole community may be saved. With the consent of the All-Present and with the consent of this congregation, we give leave to eat and drink on the Day of Atonement.” From "Three Who Ate"

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© 2016 by Rabbi Mark H. Levin.