I didn’t even need to go inside a hospital to learn about the mitzvah of bikkur cholim, visiting the sick. It was an integral part of my family background. I grew up with stories of my grandfather’s participation in the “Press Old Newsboys,” a legion of businessmen who purportedly began as newspaper boys and had become successful enough to raise money for Pittsburgh’s Children’s Hospital. Some people may have been inspired by this legacy; I was terrified. I remember looking at the framed newspaper clipping in my grandmother’s house, a picture of my mother and aunt as older adolescents, smiling by the bedside of a young patient about their age, a blond girl whose face I will never forget. I stared at it uncontrollably every time I visited my grandmother, obsessed with her fate. Did she make it out of there alive? Why does G-d make some people healthy and some not? How does He decide?
The annual Children’s Hospital telethon added more life to my unhealthy obsession. At exactly this time of year, my family gathered faithfully around the television set, watching our city’s most venerated newscaster spend the evening going from ward to ward, microphone in hand, visiting all the little patients, trying to cheer them up. I was haunted by a young girl who actually lived in the hospital–she had become a “regular” on the annual telethon–until, one year, the newscaster announced grimly that she wasn’t living anywhere anymore.
What was I supposed to think about that?
Almost any exposure to adversity triggered my obsessive thoughts. When I tell people now that this is how I spent much of my youth, they’re surprised that I thought so much about these things. Trust me, I couldn’t wait to stop. “Growing up” meant finally being able to enjoy myself, which is what eventually happened to me. But when I became observant, I realized that my obsession, painful as it was, served a holy purpose: I was thinking about life. Not that I have answers, but I understand now that mitzvos heal the world. And healing the world brings Moshiach, a time when people won’t get sick or obsess over why people get sick. Many holy spiritual benefits characterize the Messianic era, but let’s be honest, eternal physical health is a pretty good one, too.
Until that time arrives, I’ve come to ponder that life is just one long (or sometimes, unfortunately, not so long) effort on G-d’s part to sensitize us to the reality of ain od milvado, there is nothing but Him. Neither our health nor our very lives is in our own hands, and these challenges are one more way to recognize Him. Could that be why bikkur cholim is one of the handful of mitzvos you’re rewarded for in this world and in the next? It isn’t easy to visit a sick person, especially for someone with my psychological profile, but I try to focus on what the mitzvah accomplishes. (I’ve been told that it actually removes 1/60th of a person’s illness.) I try to call the patient first, I try not to stay too long, and–this is my favorite rule–I try not to get myself all fancy for the visit. (Someone who’s unwell doesn’t need to be reminded how good it feels to get dressed to go out.)
Bikkur cholim simultaneously reminds us of our fragility and our power, our humanness and our G-dliness. And our essential connectedness, no matter what condition we’re in.