Vayera: Presence and Healing

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayera

The important thing [I mean, besides the Red Sox being in the World
Series] is this week’s Torah portion, Vayera, which means “he
appeared,” referring to a theophany [manifestation of the Divine to a
human- in this case, Avraham] right at the beginning of the portion:

“The Lord appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting
at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. Looking up, he saw
three men standing near him. . . . . (Bereshit 18:1-2)

A key piece of context is the ending of last week’s Torah portion,
where Avraham circumcised himself and his household, because the
ancient rabbis assume that he’s sitting in the entrance of his tent
(and not riding around on one of his adventures) because he’s
recovering from the pain of the surgery. Thus, when the next sentence-
the first one of this week’s parsha- reads that the Lord appeared to
him, and then three mysterious men appear in the verse after that, a
beautiful midrash connects all three.

This midrash, or re-imagining of the text, says that God appeared to
Avraham as an act of kindness- hesed- to the sick (or recovering, in
this case.) The three men are manifestations of the Divine, there to
announce the birth of Avraham’s son, but also to bring healing to
Avraham. (Cf. Rashi on these verses, for example.) Healing, in this
case, does not- as I read it- mean physical healing, but an emotional
and spiritual healing and encouragement. The essence of bikkur holim-
visiting the sick- is not only the physical needs of the patient
(although that’s a huge part of the mitzvah), but also to provide
companionship, hope, friendship, and loving presence, which can make
the experience of illness or injury more bearable.

Now, an interesting point is that the mitzvah of visiting the sick is
demonstrated, but not actually derived, from the story of this divine
visitation to Avraham. In fact, many authorities say that bikkur holim
is not a separate mitzvah at all, but is part of the more general
principle of “loving your neighbor as yourself” (Vayikra/Leviticus
19:18), whereas others derive it from “you shall walk in [literally,
‘after’] God’s ways. . . ” (D’varim/ Deuteronomy 13:5.) The
authorities who says that bikkur holim comes from the general mitzvah
to “walk in God’s ways” see visiting the sick as an act of divine
compassion, which we are to emulate and develop within ourselves.

There are many practical aspects to bikkur holim, which you can learn
by following the links below. However, much of the mitzvah is common
sense and just showing up, in person or via telephone if someone is
far away, and behaving with generosity, humility and sensitivity. I
believe that Judaism teaches us something profound by categorizing
compassionate acts, such as bikkur holim as mitzvot, non-negotiable
spiritual disciplines. The fact is that it’s often no fun to confront
human frailty- visiting someone in the hospital or sick at home forces
us to confront our fears and our mortality, and can be unsettling.

Yet by understanding bikkur holim as an act of “walking in God’s
ways,” we affirm that both the patient and the visitor are made in the
Divine Image- that is, the patient is not just a disease, or symptoms,
or injury, but a whole person, affirmed and joined by another person
made whole in the very act of connecting with a fellow soul. That’s
the importance of bikkur holim- it reminds us who we really are:
bearers of Divine love and healers of the human spirit.

Shabbat Shalom,



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