Drash on Parashat Vayeira 2018
Rabbi Martha Bergadine
United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong
This week’s parasha, Vayera, is filled with key episodes in the lives of Abraham and Sarah. The Torah portion opens with God appearing to Abraham at Mamre and continues with the visit of three men who promise that Sarah will bear a son. The text then moves forward with the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham and Sarah’s encounter with Abimlelech, the king of Gerar, the birth of Isaac, the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael, and finally concludes with the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac.
Few parshiot contain so many momentous events, but it is the very first verse of the parasha that struck me -- perhaps because I have bronchitis – since it is the origin of what I believe to be one of Judaism’s most significant mitzvot.
The verse reads: "Adonai appeared to him (Abraham) by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. (Genesis 18:1)
According to Rashi, the purpose of God’s appearance was "to visit the sick.” The text doesn’t indicate anyone was ill. So who is Rashi referring to? To answer that question, the rabbis look to the final two verses of last week's parashah where we learn that Abraham and Ishmael, his son, were circumcised. Quoting Rabbi Hama Bar Hanina, Rashi comments that on the third day following the circumcision God appeared at Mamre to inquire about Abraham's health.
From God’s visit to Abraham, Jewish tradition derives the mitzvot of bikur cholim, visiting the sick.
A large body of Jewish law has grown up around the mitzvah of bikur cholim. It details exactly who is to be considered ill, who should visit, how many people should visit at one time, which days and what time of day to visit, what to wear when visiting, where to sit, and what to say. But what arises most clearly from this thicket of regulation is the key value of simply being present with another at a time of illness, depression, anxiety, or suffering.
Two of the greatest challenges of contemporary life are isolation and lack of community. Illness can exacerbate these and make us feel even more alone. Bikur cholim offers an antidote -- human connection and a sense of community through another’s presence.
Bikur cholim harnesses the healing power of human relationships. The Talmud tells of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai who was famed for his power to heal. When he heard of someone who was sick, he would visit the person and speak with them, and at the end of the visit, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai would hold out his hand and the person would clasp it and rise. One day Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai became ill and was visited by Rabbi Hanina, who, after speaking with him, held out his hand. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai took his hand and stood. Upon hearing this story a student asked, “Why couldn’t Yochanan ben Zakkai raise himself ?” – since he was known to be a great healer. The answer . . . “because the prisoner can not free himself from prison.” Even Yochanan ben Zakkai, the great healer, needed the presence of another person, to free himself from the fear and isolation of his illness.
Beyond this, bikur cholim truly makes us partners with God. Rabbi Hama ben Hanina’s rhetorical question, “What does the Torah mean when is says walk in the ways of Adonai?” is answered in part “It means that you should imitate the ways of God. . . . Just as God visited the sick (Abraham), so should you visit the sick.” (Sotah 14a) Through our presence we inspire hope and are a conduit of God’s care and protection.
Engaging in the mitzvah of bikur cholim may be daunting. That is understandable -- sickbeds and hospitals can be frightening places and it is easy to be anxious about saying or doing the wrong thing – but friends and loved ones are the same people they were before illness struck. They need us to be present. Visiting acquaintances may seem awkward but many congregations have Caring Committees and Bikur Cholim groups that can provide support to those who wish to be of service to others.
The essence of bikur cholim is to be there for those who are ill, alone, or suffering. Through human relationship we can bring comfort and a sense of connection, and as the tradition teaches “take away 1/60 of the suffering.” But most importantly, when we are present with those in need, we are powerful reminders of God’s presence and the healing power of hope and love.