Sniffling, coughing, fatigue, scratchy throat. No, this is not an ad for a flu relief medicine. Sadly, this is a reality for many of us as the winter season approaches with its insidious colds and flus.
During this stretch, rabbis visit many sick congregants with the hopes of bringing them relief and joy. I’d like to share what I understand to be the backbones of an effective bikur holim (visiting the sick) visit, what I call “The Three M’s of Bikur Holim” — using our mouth, muscles and money in the healing process.
There’s a lot we can do with our mouths to uplift the spirits of the sick. When I visit congregants, they oftentimes want to know what’s happening on the outside of the hospital or bedroom, or what’s new at shul. By sharing simple, often overlooked facts “on the outside” — such as “We had a lot of people in synagogue this Sabbath” or “The program this week was interesting, so-and-so spoke” — you add normalcy to a not-so-normal reality.
You can also use your mouth to share words of encouragement and tell jokes. I’m not the best joke-teller (I always seem to forget punchlines), but even my worst jokes can make a bad situation better for the ones I’m visiting (well, most of the time!).
Another important way to use your mouth is through prayer. Rava, the Talmudic sage, said, “When I am sick, let all who love me pray for me” (Bab. Talmud, Nedarim 40a). I actually have a colleague who will never complete a bikur holim visit without reciting some form of prayer. You can pray on behalf of the sick or offer to pray with them if they’re open to this. It doesn’t have to be a formal prayer; whatever comes from the heart. You also can recite Psalms. Psalms 23, 121 and 130 are often read at the bedside of the sick.
Another effective way to raise spirits is through song. Some of us may feel uncomfortable singing, but if you’re up to it and it’s well received, this can bring much comfort and happiness. When I visit congregants, they’re often sad they can’t be in synagogue, so I try to bring the shul to them. We may sing the Adon Olam prayer or, around Rosh Hashanah time, the Avinu Malkeinu melody. Singing the Lecha Dodi hymn can transport those lying in bed to their fondest Sabbath memories. It’s a beautiful thing when the person you’re visiting sits up and joins in song, with their whole spirit coming to life.
On a very basic level, you can make sure the person you’re visiting is comfortable. Is their pillow in the right location? Does their body need to be propped up? Are their legs positioned comfortably? Another muscle mitzvah would be to help organize their surroundings. The Talmud teaches how Rabbi Akiva himself (see Meiri ad loc.) tidied up a sick student’s living quarters, sweeping and throwing water on the dirt floor. The student immediately proclaimed, “My teacher, you revived me!” If they are comfortable with you doing so, you can do simple chores such as clearing off used cups, removing waste they can’t throw away or organizing possessions on their side table. You’d be surprised how a little organizing can dispel a lot of confusion and stress.
Going through an illness can be a very lonely experience; you can use your financial resources to help alleviate a sick friend’s loneliness. That’s why the following “insider tip” I received when becoming a rabbi is so important: keep get-well cards in your glove compartment. Whenever you visit someone ill, leave them a signed card assuring them they are in your prayers. Just having them see the card when you leave reminds them they are never alone. Other ways to help with one’s money are to purchase a favorite food or drink or prepare a home-cooked dish. A bouquet of flowers never falls on unreceptive hands.
The Talmud teaches that whoever visits the sick, “The Lord will preserve them, keep them alive and let them be called happy in the Land.” May all of these blessings come true for us this winter as we actively engage in “The Three M’s of Bikur Holim.”
Rabbi Eli Yoggev serves Beth Tfiloh Congregation.
See Rabbi Eli Yoggev’s Feb. 8 appearance on Your Weekend Agenda on Facebook Live: