Visiting Sick Person and Art of Simply Being Present

Bikur cholim, visiting the sick, is one of the fundamental Jewish expressions of gemilut chesed (loving-kindness), but it is also a great vehicle for spiritual practice. In ten years of Zen meditation, I learned to cultivate a deep sense of simply being present. Moving from this practice to an observant Jewish life, I found that bikur cholim, above all other Jewish practices, was the one that required me to call upon this sense most insistently.

Every time I stand outside a hospital room before a visit, I go through a moment of meditation at the threshold. I stand still there, taking stock of my state of mind; invariably it includes at least a touch of fear. I am frightened because, deep down, I feel responsible for saving the person who is ill, and of course I cannot. I cannot make them well nor save them from death, if that is where their illness seems to be taking them. So there at the threshold, I remind myself that I have not come to do anything at all, but simply to be with the person I am visiting. Simple human presence is the greatest gift we can convey to anyone, no matter what their state of health, but this truth is particularly evident when we visit the sick.

Sometimes, in fact, there are things that we can do for someone who is ill. We can bring them the telephone when it rings, or wipe their brow, or call the nurse for them if they need her. We can listen to them; their illness may have touched a deep chord in their psyche, may have set off a considerable disturbance there, and there may be quite a bit they need to get off their chest. Sometimes our presence can be comforting because it relieves them of their loneliness. Sometimes it can even bring a sense of meaning to their predicament. Their illness may well have shattered the beliefs from which they derived purpose in their lives, but they may find it quite meaningful that you care about them, that you have taken the trouble to come. Or when you pray for them in the language and customs of a particular religious culture, they may find it comforting to be connected to a community of meaning larger than their own, one that will go on even after their own life has come to an end.

But most of this comes under the category of simply being present anyway, being present to bring them the phone, to listen, to relieve them of their sense of isolation. So making bikur cholim a part of your spiritual practice, and pausing at the doorway to engage in this sort of meditation when you do, can be quite beneficial, quite helpful in your own attempt to cultivate a strong sense of simply being present. The more immediate and vivid your sense of your own presence is, of course, the more you will have to bring to this encounter, and meditation is certainly one way to deepen and expand this sense.

Often the most difficult step in practicing bikur cholim is just getting started. To visit the sick and the dying is to put ourselves in the presence of suffering, when our usual instinct is to avoid it. So there is a certain resistance we need to overcome, even when visiting friends and relatives who are ill. There is intimidation as well, that fear of not knowing what to do we spoke of earlier. But the good news is that there are increasing opportunities to practice bikur cholim in many American cities these days, and most of them involve some training to help get you over the intimidation barrier.

A growing number of synagogues have formed bikur cholim committees in recent years, having come to understand that the rabbis need not monopolize this practice the way they have for so long. In the traditional Jewish community, bikur cholim was seen as a communal obligation, a spiritual practice engaged in by everyone, not just the rabbi, and we are slowly but surely beginning to see the wisdom of this point of view. Most of these synagogue committees offer training in bikur cholim as well as regular opportunities to practice it. A new kind of institution, the Jewish healing center, has begun to emerge in recent years in New York, San Francisco, and other major American cities. These centers also offer training in bikur cholim and tend to be particularly sensitive to the spiritual opportunities it presents. Finally there is hospice. All hospice programs, Jewish and otherwise, depend heavily on the participation of volunteers and offer fairly extensive volunteer training in how to care for the dying. The opportunities for cultivating the practice of visiting the sick and the dying are increasingly available for anyone who is sincerely interested in doing so.