by Rabbi Batsheva Appel
After these things, someone said to Joseph, “Your father is ill.” So he took with him his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. When someone told Jacob, “Your son Joseph has come to see you,” Israel strengthened himself and sat up in bed. [Genesis 48:1 – 2]
Jacob’s responds to his son’s visit: despite his illness, he strengthens himself and sits up in bed. The Hebrew word here, vayitchazeik, is the reflexive form of the verb. The strength that Jacob gets from the visit is the strength that he summons himself. Joseph has only visited his father, but that visit makes a big difference.
Bikkur Cholim is the mitzvah of visiting the sick. In the Talmud, Rabbi Acha Bar Chanina says: “One who visits someone who is ill removes a sixtieth of their pain. [BT Nedarim 39b] We see that people who are ill show the same type of response today. It might be that a visitor is a welcome distraction from their pain or their worries or their boredom. It might be that a visitor makes them feel less lonely and more connected to community. Visits do make a difference and people do strengthen themselves.
When we do bikkur cholim we are not expected to explain anything [medically or theologically] or to fix anything. We are expected to be present for the person that we are visiting and take our cues from them. If they want to hear all of the latest news, then we offer that. If they want to tell us about their illness and the challenges that they face, then we listen. We are a reassuring presence for them, nothing more. We don’t need to spend much time to make a huge difference. In fact, a phone call or an email or a note or a card, can be reassuring, if we are unable to make a visit. And if they say that they don’t want visits or calls, we respect their wishes. But by being present for people who are ill or who are facing other challenges in their lives we help them to draw on their own strength at a time when they need it most.
As we finish reading the Book of Genesis with Parashat Vayechi, this week’s Torah portion, we say: chazak chazak v’nitchazeik “from strength to strength and may we be strengthened.” When we offer support and strength chazak to each other at times of illness and challenge, as well as support and strength chazak to each other at times of joy and celebration, then, v’nitchazeik we are able to strengthen ourselves and our community. The strength of our community is found in the connections that we have with each other, the support that we offer each other, and the ways in which our presence for each other helps us to strengthen ourselves.
Chazak Chazak v’nitchazeik “from strength to strength and may we be strengthened.”
Rabbi Batsheva Appel is the senior rabbi of KAM Isaiah Israel in Chicago.