A Familiar Face – the U and I in Bikur Cholim

by Tziri Hershkovitz

“A routine endoscopy turned into nightmare when my esophagus decided that the scope was too invasive,” Nosson says. “A tear in the esophagus is particularly concerning because of unsterile gastrointestinal bacteria that can possibly seep into the blood. A round of antibiotics along with monitoring are required, and for some reason, that meant a four-day hospital stay.

“I hated everything about it — the hospital, the room, the liquid diet, the very fact that it was a dumb doctor error, and somehow, perhaps all the more so, because it was, baruch Hashem, just a dumb doctor error. I recognized that I wasn’t even entitled to be genuinely upset because b’chasdei Hashem I was healthy and would soon be fine.

“A huge part of my irritability was related to my being off schedule, not davening with a minyan, and particularly not having my chavrusah learn with me. I needn’t have worried. Bright and early, the second day of my stay, my brother-in-law walked into my room with a sefer under his arm. This brother-in-law is genuinely busy throughout the day, with his business requiring an incredible amount of his time and effort. But somehow, he never lacks the time to do chessed — as if his day would be incomplete without it.

“It is difficult to describe what the sight of Avrum walking into my hospital room did to my anxious and testy mood.”

Mitzvah Mavens
Bikur Cholim is but one of our 613 mitzvos, yet it is also one of the most popular positive commandments Klal Yisrael has endeavored to fulfill. Indeed, countless bikur cholim organizations outdo themselves daily, providing sustenance and support to kimpeturen, the elderly and infirm — and so many others, each with their own set of needs. Their ingenuity and chessed, and ultimately the recipients’ gratitude, go beyond anything that can be summed up in mere words. Everyone who has ever experienced the kindness of a bikur cholim group can wax poetic about the incredible comfort and calm that enveloped them once those volunteers arrived on the scene.

And yet, there’s something to be said for seeing the familiar face of family or friend — even if they cannot stay long.

“When my husband had relatively minor surgery, I didn’t want to bother my children, particularly my sons living out of town who were occupied with their Torah studies. It was an ambulatory procedure and he was home by evening. Once my husband was recuperating in his own bed, I did let the children know that, baruch Hashem, their father was on the mend.

“A few hours after I’d told them, my son showed up at our front door. This busy Maggid Shiur who has an extremely hectic schedule, traveled well over a hundred miles for a ten-minute visit. 
“‘What are you doing here?’ I asked, astonished.

“‘My father is recuperating from surgery! How can I not be at his side? Even if only for a short while.’ Torah isn’t merely learned; it’s lived.

“Moved beyond words, I treasured the brief, yet precious, visit with this son whom I don’t get to see often. But all too soon I knew what I had to do. I packed him a bag of cakes and goodies to take home to his darling family and sent him on his way. Our talmid chacham had done the mitzvah of bikur cholim and his father and I couldn’t be prouder. It was time he returned to his other responsibilities.”

Comfort in Care
There’s loneliness and helplessness in a hospital setting. There’s also an element of anxiety, whether warranted or not. A familiar face, in these cases, is often wished for — and always welcome.

“I had been hospitalized unexpectedly last winter,” Tzivi shares. “I hadn’t brought anything with me, so there I was in the chilly room wearing a thin hospital gown. The length of my stay was indeterminate as we apprehensively awaited results. My sister arrived a few hours into my wait. She had thoughtfully brought me a snood along with warm, homemade food. After one look at my shivering form, she removed her scarf and unfurled it. Suddenly it was a wide, beautiful wrap which she draped around me. I felt enveloped in a loving embrace that kept me feeling warm long after she’d left.”

When physically depleted, it stands to reason that we’re emotionally vulnerable as well. At those moments, kindness is more important and more appreciated than ever.

“I had given birth in Beth Israel Medical Center on erev Pesach, an hour before the zman,” Chanie relates. “Once he was sure I was alright, my husband rushed home to be with our family. It was what we’d planned on. I was fine and there was no logical need for him to stay in the hospital. But the next day found me alone, scared and worried as the Yom Tov day dragged on long and lonely. I didn’t have food with me. As it was Pesach, I wasn’t comfortable with the tray brought to my room nor was I physically capable of heading to the bikur cholim room. Suddenly, as if a malach from on High, a yungerman from the East Side knocked on my door and asked if I wanted to hear Kiddush. His hands were laden with food from the bikur cholim room, products I felt very comfortable eating on Pesach. I was incredibly grateful for the meal, but I’ll readily confess that I’ve never been so happy to encounter a stranger — he was a beautiful reminder that wherever we find ourselves, a Yid is never alone. The feeling I experienced at that time… it still warms and uplifts me whenever I recall that moment. 

“I probably didn’t adequately express my gratitude. It felt awkward at the time. But I do wish that this man, and all others who devote time to this invaluable mitzvah, know just how much it means to a patient alone in a cold, sterile hospital room.”

The mitzvah of bikur cholim doesn’t differentiate between age or wealth. Neither maturity nor financial security can provide that human element so needed at the time. 

“My father had been the administrator at a yeshivah for over fifty years. When he fell ill, after a particularly grueling procedure in Columbia hospital, he received an unexpected visit from the venerable and chashuve Rosh Yeshivah. With no fanfare and no mention of the effort it must have taken to get himself there, the Rosh Yeshivah took a seat in the room. There were no probing questions as to the condition, no idle chit chat. It was simply his presence. After 15 minutes, he rose, wished a heartfelt ‘refuah sheleimah’ and headed out. 

“All of us present were incredibly moved by the genuineness and graciousness of the visit.”

Humbled Hearts
Bikur cholim can be challenging, insofar as the infirmity we encounter makes us face our own mortality. It can be quite humbling too, especially when we realize that we are powerless to alter the situation or provide genuine relief. But, in essence, that helpless feeling, along with the very recognition of Who is in charge, is part and parcel of this beautiful mitzvah. We are exhorted to daven for the choleh, and the intensity of our emotions when in such close proximity, takes our tefillos to new heights.

“My father’s machalah was ravaging his body. Our family saw the pain he was in but were at a loss — there was little we could do to alleviate his suffering. Yet we noticed, without fail, how each visitor who walked through the door lightened his mood and lifted the heaviness in the room. There was a smile on his lips that would linger even after the visitor had left.”

Most Meaningful Moments
Our thoughts have tremendous power over our wellbeing. Positivity can energize and uplift. Often, especially for the elderly, sweet memories of the past can draw away the pain and melancholy, filling the room with the joys of simpler days.

“When my grandfather was in his late-90s, it was painful to watch his energy waning,” Blimy says. “Although he loved and remembered all his grandchildren, his spirits were depleted, and it didn’t seem like our visits were doing him much good. 

“One day, my mother met a middle-aged couple for whom my grandfather had been shadchan. Never quite a professional shadchan, he had taken great pride in the few shidduchim he’d been zocheh to arrange. The couple inquired about their shadchan’s wellbeing and expressed concern that they were no longer seeing him walk to minyan every day. They were relieved to hear that he was very alert, just physically unable to go outdoors. When they inquired about the feasibility of a visit, my mother told them that visits were most welcome.

“They came the following day, and there was such delight in my grandfather’s eyes when ‘his couple’ appeared. It wasn’t a lengthy visit, but his spirits were immediately lifted as they reminisced about days gone by and related their latest nachas — which to him, was always his nachas too. He kvelled for a long time after that visit.”

Bikur cholim visits shouldn’t tire anyone out. When coming from a place of obligation or because one feels sorry, the visit will drain all participants. The same is true if one overstays his welcome. But when the visit is inspired by and infused with empathy and love, the experience is enriching for all. 

Fortified by Friendship
“When my father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, he tried to hide it from the family,” Shulem shares. “Soon that wasn’t possible, but what was even harder to hide was the devastating effect it had on his emotional state. This vibrant and energetic man, who could previously handle anything life threw his way, was now broken in body and spirit. No longer capable of driving or making the long trek to his shul, he took to davening close to home.

“We attempted to spare him from sad news, but somehow he heard that the Rav from his old shul was diagnosed with a rapidly progressing case of multiple sclerosis. Years ago, before Parkinson’s encroached on his independence, cutting him off from his daily activities and close friends, my father had maintained a very close relationship with his Rav. I wasn’t entirely surprised when he asked that I arrange a visit — he wanted to be mevaker choleh. Still, I was worried about how they would handle it — how each seeing his dear friend’s broken state could possibly be beneficial for either of them. But I made the arrangements anyway.

“The day I brought my father over, I just sat on the side of the room as the two friends reminisced, learned together for a bit, but mostly tried to provide each other with words of chizuk. Then they started singing. Softly at first, until they were both lost in songs of emunah and gratitude. They smiled through their tears, and still they sang.

“The visit went on for well over an hour, and I wondered who was mevaker choleh whom. From our end, I know the positive effects lasted for many days.”

Thoroughly Thoughtful
Kindness takes many forms. As colorful as we are as individuals, so varied will our responses to situations be. Some stories delight us with their creativity, others just inspire and remind us that perhaps next time, it will be we who will knock on the sick neighbor’s door with a hot drink or an offer to run an errand.
“I was supposed to have recuperated already,” Esther insists, “but the baby cried non-stop and my 20-month-old, back from the babysitter, reverted to waking up three times a night. I wanted to cry too. There I was, four weeks postpartum, and barely keeping it together.

“One morning, after my husband left for Shacharis, I sleepwalked to the kitchen to prepare scrambled eggs for the older kids. At first, I ignored the knock on the door, but it was persistent so I finally answered. There stood two of my sisters-in-law. I was mortified at the state of my home, and what I likely looked like, but the darling girls understood. They asked if the baby was fed (he was) and they proceeded to tell me to go to bed. ‘We’ve got this,’ they said. I didn’t need to be asked twice.

“Three hours later, I woke from my nap, took a shower and got dressed. Miriam was playing with the kids in the (clean!) living room. Chava had washed the dishes, cleared the kitchen and prepared lunch for us all. I don’t think any soup I’ve ever tasted since, can compete with the flavor of that hot vegetable soup.”
“I was home post-surgery,” Libby shares. “Recuperating on the sofa (where else?), when my three nieces showed up with a cozy throw. In the years since, that blanket has long become a family favorite, but for me, it has special value… It will always be the tangible hug from three special girls.”

“I was on a liquid diet, so food was out,” Simi shrugs. “Never one to be stumped, my sister showed up with a tin of mints and a delightfully scented hand lotion. And there was a note. Probably unnecessarily flowery, but in my vulnerable post-op position, I so appreciated — and needed — every soft, sweet and supportive word I received.”

“Going through chemotherapy took a lot out of me,” Dovid says. “I also had no appetite, so food was kind of pointless. One of the sweetest gifts I recall, was the massage a friend arranged. Beyond feeling pampered at that moment, it was so reassuring to be thought of. Illness can be isolating. Knowing that our friends are remembering us, is already heartening and healing.” 

“For kimpeturen,” Gitti explains, “there are a plethora of organizations that send fancy lunches. Sometimes food trains are arranged, and those are so very appreciated! Still, whenever there’s a personal touch, a note, a flower, a bar of chocolate, it gives that extra boost and cheers the kimpeturin up in a very real way.”

Divine Devotion
This Divine commandment that so uplifts cholim when they are at their lowest is derived from the mitzvah to emulate Hashem; “Be holy, because I, Hashem, am holy.”
Perhaps not so surprisingly, many of the mitzvos in this category are centered around gamilus chassadim, — a key pillar of Yiddishkeit.

“V’halachtah b’drachav (And you should follow His path)” is essentially a road map and expression of the Jewish heart.

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