It is obvious that health – good health – is a commodity in life that should be most appreciated and cherished. This is true at all ages and stations in life but it becomes even more apparent and vital as one advances in years. The prayer for one to be “healed” – to be healthy – is recited by us thrice daily, no matter what our age or health condition may be. The greetings that people grant each other in whatever language they may be speaking invariably are words of blessing and hope for good health.
For the human body, wondrous and complicated and exact as it is, and it certainly is all of that and more, is also very fragile and delicate. Everything must work correctly for us to feel healthy and good about ourselves. The slightest nagging pain or even relatively minor discomfort affects our mood and our creativity and sense of worth. The professional athlete is constantly counseled and even ordered to “play hurt.” But in real life it becomes a daunting task to “play hurt.” And those who are blessed with good health and a pain-free existence are rarely able to completely empathize with their less fortunate colleagues.
“Stop kvetching” we tell our little children when they complain and whine over some minor physical hurt. This relatively unsympathetic attitude unfortunately remains ingrained within us even when we deal with adults and more major difficulties. It is to counteract this apparently innate insensitivity to the condition and feelings of others that the Torah mandates for us the fulfillment of the value of visiting the sick – bikur cholim.
The Torah derives this component of human behavior to visit and cheer the sick from God’s visit, so to speak, to our father Avraham after his circumcision surgery. In fact, the healing angel Refael is sent to the tent of Avraham for the express purpose of diminishing his pain and helping heal his wound. Thus visiting the sick, in terms of Jewish thought and behavior, became a Godly enterprise and not only a social nicety.
Investing otherwise ordinary human behavior with a sense of holiness and mission is one of the great hallmarks of a Torah life. Thus visiting the sick becomes a value for which one “eats the fruits thereof in this world while the principal reward for it is preserved for payment in the World to Come.” But how does visiting the sick help the sick person? The Talmud teaches us that the visit removes one-sixtieth of the pain and discomfort. By this the rabbis meant that the expression of care that the visit signifies is itself a source of encouragement and good feeling for the sick person.
As such the sick person feels somewhat lightened of the burden of the sickness being suffered. There are naturally situations when no visiting should be allowed to take place and in any instance the visit should not be overly long and taxing for the sick person. Nevertheless, in most instances, care and concern expressed by the visit of others is a boon to one’s health and well being.
The Talmud teaches us that sickness was relatively unknown until the time of our father Yaakov. It was then introduced according to the request of Yaakov himself in order to give one an opportunity to settle one’s affairs in this world and prepare for the transition to the eternal world. Sickness therefore was not always seen as being something completely negative. It certainly allows one to fix one’s thoughts and behavior on the important things in life and let loose of the pettiness that so often dominates our existence.
Sickness was also seen as a form of expiation of sins in this world. Nevertheless, our prayers on Yom Kippur ask God to erase and expiate our sins but not to use sickness and pain as methods to do so. All of our prayers to be spared are legitimate and justified. For many times the lack of good physical health results eventually in weaker spiritual health as well. There are many examples in Jewish history of great people who rose above their ill health and became spiritually stronger and greater.
Yet there are many instances when ill health had the completely opposite effect upon the previously pious and inspiring person. Since there cannot be any hard and fast rule regarding this matter that will fit all individuals and circumstances, our prayers to God for continued good health are in order and deemed necessary and justified. So let us therefore continue to wish ourselves and all those that we encounter the blessing of good health and long life .