A fundamental feature of Jewish spiritual healing is bikur cholim (visiting the sick), which responds to two of the greatest burdens of contemporary life: isolation and lack of community. At a time of illness, bikur cholim offers us the comfort of human connection and interdependence, a sense of community we so desperately need.
The mitzvah of bikur cholim helps fulfill the obligation to “love our neighbor as yourself,” and it is required of every Jew (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah: Laws of Mourning, ch. 14). Like comforting mourners and performing other acts of kindness, bikur cholim brings goodness to the world (Avot de Rabbi Natan 39:1).
By participating in the spiritual support group for HIV+ Jews, David had his first positive adult experience of Jewish community. Having been rejected by the Jewish community during his adolescence because of being gay, David had, in turn, rejected Judaism. It was only later, in his mid-40s, emboldened by a sense that he now had “nothing to lose,” that David met with other Jews for support and comfort. His experience in the spiritual support group radically changed his attitude toward Judaism, as he grew to see that in fact there was a place for him. Having looked to eastern religions for a spiritual home in his young adulthood, David was relieved to find that he “no longer had to knock on any doors: the door to tradition was open.” When the group came to a close, David and two other participants joined a local Reform synagogue. The ensuing bikur cholim visits provided by synagogue members and Jewish professionals bolstered him tremendously during the difficult days of illness that lay ahead.
Torah teaches that one who practices bikur cholim imitates God, whose presence visited Abraham after his circumcision (Genesis Rabbah, 8:13). The sources teach that each of us is visited by God’s presence when we are ill, which we may interpret as feeling a sense of hope, care, and protection. This is exactly what a loving visitor can inspire. The Codes teach that God’s presence rests upon the head of the bed of anyone who is sick, and that we must not sit there for fear of blocking it (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah: Laws of Mourning, ch.14). This suggests that the visitor must reflect and not obscure God’s presence when attending to the person who is ill.
Bikur cholim demonstrates the healing power of relationship. There are many stories in the Talmud about Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, famed for his power to heal. When he heard of another rabbi who was sick, he would visit and speak with him about his suffering. After speaking, Yohanan ben Zakkai would hold out his hand, and the other rabbi would rise. One day Yohanan ben Zakkai fell ill. He was visited by Rabbi Hanina, who, after speaking to the stricken sage, held out his hand, and Yohanan ben Zakkai stood up. “Why couldn’t Yohanan ben Zakkai raise himself?” the disciples asked, as he was known to be a great healer. The answer: “Because the prisoner cannot free himself from prison.” (Berachot 5b) Here we learn that even the greatest of Jewish healers need another person to help free himself from the prison of fear, hopelessness, and isolation.