Some Ill People Need More than Just a Visit

Spiritual needs cannot be ignored, but sometimes we should notice the material needs of those who are ill, and take action.

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Providing for the material needs of the ill can take many forms. In Israel, for example, a national volunteer organization, Yad Sarah, assists people recovering from illness or dealing with chronic illness by lending equipment such as wheel chairs and crutches and providing transportation for physically challenged people, all at no charge. In this article, reprinted with permission from The Book of Jewish Values, published by Bell Tower, awareness of such needs is modeled by one of the rabbinic sages of antiquity.

“It once happened that one of Rabbi Akiva’s students became sick, but none of the sages went to visit him. Rabbi Akiva, however, went to visit him. Because he swept and cleaned the floor for him, the student recovered. The student said to him, ‘Rabbi you have revived me!’ Rabbi Akiva came out and taught, ‘Those who do not visit a sick person might just as well have spilled his blood.’” (Babvlonian Talmud, Nedarim 40a)

A man I know was talking to an elderly friend who was suffering from intense back pains. At first he thought that there was simply nothing the physicians could do to alleviate the man’s distress, but then he learned that there was medicine that could help him, only his friend could not afford it. Fortunately, he was able to help him acquire the medicine.

What a happy solution to an otherwise heart-wrenching problem. In Ahavat Hesed (Love of Kindness), the Hafetz Hayyim, a great Eastern European sage and ethicist (1838-1933), emphasizes that the commandment to visit the sick applies with particular force to poor people: “If the poor person is not visited, his very life may be jeopardized. Usually he cannot afford the food he needs to eat. He has no one to consult with concerning his condition. Sometimes he cannot even afford to call a doctor or buy medicine.... His worries increase when he realizes that he has lain in bed for several days, and no one has opened the door to care for him or to revive him.”

This is the power of the Talmud's story about Rabbi Akiva. The sick student whom he visited might well not have been able to afford to hire someone to nurse him, or even to clean his dwelling. By cleaning his environment, Rabbi Akiva might literally have saved the person’s life. Such was certainly true in the past, when many sick people lived in poor, and often dirty, homes.

Rabbi Akiva’s visit undoubtedly helped the sick person in another way: Because he was so preeminent a sage, others would have noticed the care he lavished on the sick man, and taken care to visit the man as well. Thus, a prominent person can accomplish additional good by visiting a poor or unknown person who is ill; others may well be inspired to emulate him.

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Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin is the author of Jewish Literacy and Words that Hurt, Words that Heal, along with other widely-read books on Judaism and the "Rabbi Daniel Winter" murder mysteries. He lives in New York City and lectures widely throughout North America.