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Sick-Visiting

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One of the most important religious obligations is Gemilut Chessed, being kind to someone. Indeed, according to the Mishna, the world is based on three things–Torah (you might say “correct human behaviour” if you want to be inclusive), Service of God (let’s call it for the sake of the agnostics, “a spiritual, pan-human dimension”), and Gemilut Chessed (kindness to other human beings, which really speaks for itself ). These are the pillars of human life.

The term “Gemilut Chesed” is used rather than “Tzedaka” (Charity), because charity can only be exercised by those who have material things giving to those without. Kindness, on the other hand, can come from a pauper to a magnate. The highest form of kindness, according to the Talmud, is dealing with the dead, because they cannot return any favours. A subcategory of Gemilut Chessed is Bikur Cholim, visiting the sick, which is not actually specified as a command in the ancient sources. Later, the Midrash describes God as sick-visiting Abraham after his circumcision, and there is a fund of Midrashic sources supporting the idea and emphasizing its centrality. There’s a brief reference in the Talmud, though even then it raises the possibility that it is subsumed under the wider category of kindness.

But as simple as it sounds, I think being kind is one of the hardest challenges we humans face. I have noticed that just as some people seem more naturally religious or pious than others, so some people seem more naturally good and kindhearted. It is expected that a rabbi, and clergymen in general, will be natural sick-visitors and do-gooders. In fact, the Orthodox rabbinate was traditionally a profession of scholars rather than pastors, and perhaps that’s why it fell more upon women to visit the sick and spread kindness around.

The men were too busy grabbing for power or status, or simply knew they weren’t very good at it and hoped their wives would cover for them, as of course many great rebbetzins did and do. Even today, Chasidic women predominate in the area of sick-visiting and welfare. They can be found around the world doing wonderful unpaid work wherever there is an opportunity to fulfill all or any aspects of the mitzvah. I am told by insiders that the very Orthodox women in Stamford Hill who deal with social issues are the very best in the land.

If being kind is such an important principle and law, then why is it in fact mentioned rather rarely and why is there such meagre discussion about its parameters in the Talmud? One reason is that it is so difficult to categorize is that so much depends on intangible human interaction. You can say it is important to be kind, but how do you know if you really are? Maybe your good intentions are having the opposite effect. How often have I seen well-meaning sick visitors overstay their welcome, or say the stupidest most inappropriate and sometimes hurtful things? And the same goes for visitors to the house of mourning.

It’s all very well to take the advice of the Talmud and learn from Job’s comforters that one should not speak before the mourner opens up the conversation. But then what happens when the mourner doesn’t feel like talking or when everyone’s sitting like a bunch dumb-struck zombies looking mournful and sad and “Waiting for Godot”?? I guess that’s why talking about practical tangible things like attending to the dead is simpler.

In Yeshiva we used to be told that Torah was the highest form of worship and greater than everything else, as it says, “VeTalmud Torah Kenneged Kulam”, and that once we left Yeshiva it would all go downhill and our religious life would sink to that most despicable level of a simple Householder, the Baal HaBayit (or Balaboss). Whereas that may be have been true of the intensity of our study, it was not necessarily true of our religious lives.

Yes, by becoming a practicing rabbi I was abandoning the Halls of Academe to teach Primary School. But outside and beyond, there was a whole raft of other activities that revolved around the idea of “kindness” that I now found myself suddenly and unpreparedly involved in. It was quite traumatic to have to visit congregants in hospitals. I had picked up a dread of hospitals during the last few months of my late father’s life (I was fortunate in that I had never been hospitalized myself). The scenes, the smells the implications terrified me. And then what did I say? What did I do? No one had told me or taught me. I read psychology and pastoral manuals and I asked and I researched, but I was till tongue-tied and awkward and burdened with a profound sense of uselessness, even anger with God for doing what He was doing to other humans and, it seemed, expecting me to pick up the pieces.

Yet for all of this angst I kept on hearing that I was helpful and kind and people appreciated my coming and yet I didn’t know why or how. And here I am forty years on and, sadly, this past month I have had to visit and be with some close friends whom the Almighty has decided He has other plans for, and I feel as helpless and useless and angry and emotionally raw and weepy as I ever did, and I still don’t know what to say or what to do.

In a way it’s like love (“Love Your Neighbour”, after all). The Hebrew word for love is based on the word to “bring” or “give”. It’s what you bring or give to a relationship that stimulates and increases love. It is your being, who you are and as you are, for better or for worse. So by being with someone, that simple act of being there, the effort to show you care, that is a kindness. You don’t have to say the right things. You certainly should not say the wrong things–silly parables or dubious theological explanations. As God says of the Jewish people in Psalms 91, “I am with him (you) in your pain.” So it must be with us, to be and to love and to find ways of showing it. That, to my mind is “above all”, Kenneged Kulam.

This is dedicated to my friend, Howard Ronson, who died Wednesday, March 21.

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