On Shabbos Tisha b’Av in July, I had the privilege and pleasure of visiting my brother-in-law in the hospital. We had such a good time; had he not been discharged, I would probably still be there. We joked about doctors, rabbis, hospitals, shuls and, of course, our in-laws. The only topic we did not discuss was the reason that he was there.
Why would we? As the patient and a physician, respectively, both of us implicitly understood his situation and the purpose of the various iatrogenic violations of his body. Our situation, and my purpose, was to remind him of the many blessings of his life.
In the innumerable bikur cholim hospital visits that I have participated in, as relative or friend, or witnessed as physician, the paradox is that while the illness precipitated the visit, it is (other than “How are you feeling?”)rarely the subject of the visit. Nor should it be.
Likewise, as the purpose of a eulogy is to, for the moment, bring the deceased back to life, the purpose of a hospital visit is to, for the moment, bring the diseased back to life. As a eulogist reminds the audience of the glories of the subject’s life, so does the hospital visitor. As a eulogist rarely focuses on the death itself (unless it was particularly painful or courageous), a visitor rarely focuses on the illness. As their death should not be permitted to define an individual, neither should their illness.
This positive approach holds true outside the hospital as well. Most of us are, on occasion, visited by pertinacious maladies that deleteriously impact us, yet allow us to continue functioning. And we do; and we should; and we shouldn’t be reminded of the cloud hanging over us every time we speak to someone.
As the purpose of shiva is to be reminded that at a time that we are feeling the most alone, we are not alone, the purpose of a hospital visit is the same. Many patients report that their friends’ visits are more encouraging, and therapeutic, than their doctors’.
Why? A famous Gematria points out that “Love” (Ahava — AHVH) is numerically 13, while “God” (YHVH) is numerically 26, exactly double. Doubling love, as in the love between two people, is Divine. When patient and visitor are expressing their love for each other, whether by word, by touch or merely by their presence, God is in the room. Nothing is more encouraging, or therapeutic, than that.
When, at the end of a shiva visit, we always ritualistically recite “HaMakom Yenachem Etchem (May God comfort you [plural])” even if the bereaved is sitting alone, it is because God is in the room with them. Who put Him there? With both shiva and bikur cholim, we did, simply by visiting. And so it is this time of year when we are moved to visit our loved ones’ final resting places.
The power of friendship is so almighty it can often trump illness. Speaking of which, God’s presence in the room can trump political disagreements, as well. In a previous era, it was considered poor taste to publicly discuss one’s ailments or political views (or wealth or religious views). Perhaps it was a more repressive era; perhaps it was more sagacious.
Shouldn’t the love that two people share be more important than their divergent views?
Do we imagine that God would wish us not to talk to each other, not to attend each other’s seders, not to come to each other’s shivas, and not to visit each other when hospitalized because we observe rituals differently, or because we voted for different candidates?
Do we imagine that God is in the room when we argue with each other, or when we love each other? Considering the fact that the most salient manifestation of God’s disappointment with us, the destruction of the Temple, was precipitated by the former, and the greatest continuous miracle with which God has blessed us, the creation of a new life, is the direct result of the latter, His answer should be obvious.
There was another paradox on that Shabbos Tisha b’Av. Though it was Tisha b’Av, we were not fasting; no one was. We would do so the following day. As the sanctified beauty of friendship supersedes the painful reminder of illness, the sanctified beauty of Shabbos supersedes the painful reminder of Tisha b’Av.
It is striking that patient rooms in Christian hospitals or nursing homes often have a Cross prominently displayed. Other than, occasionally, a barely noticed mezuzah at the entrance, there is rarely ever any sign of Judaism prominently displayed in any Jewish hospital or nursing home.
Why? It doesn’t matter. In any hospital or nursing home, when someone comes to visit, no matter what subjects are discussed, or more commonly, ignored, their love is prominently displayed.
That is what put God in the room, not some religious talisman.
There is nothing paradoxical about that.
Dr. Isaac Steven Herschkopf is a New York-based psychiatrist whose work has appeared in literary, news and medical publications.