Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Being There: Guidelines for Bikur Holim (Visiting the Sick)

Gemilut hasadim means "Acts of Kindness," and although the category is broad, it most often is employed referring to six specific acts mentioned in our sacred texts:  Malbish Arumim, providing clothes for those who need them; Bikur Holim, visiting the sick; Nichum Avelim. comforting mourners; Levayat Ha-met, accompanying the dead to their final resting place; Hachnasat Kallah, providing for brides; and Hachnasat Orchim, hospitality. 

The Torah shows us that God clothed Adam and Eve, visited Abraham when he was sick, comforted Isaac when he mourned and buried Moses.  So when we do these acts of kindness, we are in essence imitating God.  The funny thing is that these acts, like those random acts discussed yesterday, are all pretty easy to do.  You don't have to be God to visit a sick person.  You don't have to prepare much or spend anything.  You simply have to be there.

G'milut Hasadim is all about being there.  It has been said that 90 percent of life is just showing up.  In that case, so is 90 percent of being Godlike simple a matter of being there. 

Being there: so simple, yet so important.  How often do we say of a friend or relative: "He was really there for me."  How often are we brought to tears by the thought of that person who traveled that far to visit while we were sitting shiva; how often do we gain strength from the phone call or visit received from that person when we've been hospitalized. 

Most of us know how good it feels to be there; but sometimes it's hard for us to get there: We’re all busy.  We all have numerous burdens, numerous people who count on us.  We often have baggage in dealing with the person in need.  At times we've not been on speaking terms with that person.  Often there is an air of alienation or guilt to overcome.  We all know how that feels.  We all want to have done more.  We all fear the lashing out, the anger that often accompanies grief.  But once we get there, we are almost always glad we came.  The rewards are intrinsic, mostly, a sense of warmth and connectedness, to the person we've helped, to the web of relationships that connect us to not only that person, but that family, that group of co-workers, that congregation.  And that connectedness, also helps us feel closer to God.  One could easily envision God as, in some manner, that glue, or that thread, that holds us together, that brings us together, that helps us to be there for others and others to be there for us.

One woman, who had just moved into the community, lost her father to cancer.  She knew no one, and in fact belongs to another synagogue elsewhere in the New York area; but she began to come to our minyan in the morning to say kaddish.  A few weeks later she sent me a note. 

"Dear Rabbi Hammerman,
It is thirty days since the death of my beloved father. I want to express my profound gratitude to you and the members of the daily minyan. From the very first day of my joining the minyan, I was welcomed and included with warmth, friendliness and sensitivity. I have truly felt healing and comfort during this period and want you to know how much I have appreciated the community in the small chapel."

The fact that those who attended our minyan during those weeks could make such a profound difference in the life of a person none of us knew, simply by showing up and an occasional kind word, is simply astonishing.  It is also terrifying. Because each of us, myself included, held the power of life and death over that person.  Not just spiritual death; not just hope and despair.  Yes, we held the key to helping her go from despair to hope -- but even more than that.  We can never know when a person comes through this door, whether this is that person's first stop, or the last stop.  I shudder when I think of this.

Being there can work wonders.  That's why Judaism can't exist in isolation.  We shun asceticism and encourage even the simplest prayer service to include at least ten adults.  We study best in groups, not alone.  And we bring about healing not by prayer to God so much as our own human presence at bedside.  Being there might not cure a sick person but it almost always engenders healing.  When Rabbi Akiba went to visit a sick student, people cleaned and swept the house in his honor, and because the student was able to take his mind off his own tzuris, he recovered more quickly.  And Rabbi Yochanan, a 3rd century leader, did wonders for his sick student and friend, Rabbi Eliezer. The Talmud tells us that the recovery was brought about as much by his affection and friendship for the sick man as by any medicines he might have carried with him.
As a rabbi, I understand that the pastor's role is special.  At any given time, there might be hundreds of people who could be helped immensely by a simple call or visit, a kind word, or even a knowing glance.  I also understand that of those hundreds, I might be aware of only a fraction who really need me.  I also understand that when the rabbi is not there at that one time when needed the most, it is almost as if God has forgotten us.  There is no lonelier feeling.  Any clergy person with a conscience goes to sleep every night knowing that, without knowing who, he or she has let someone down that day; knowing that there is someone out there screaming for help at that moment; knowing that, no matter how much he has done, there is always more that must be done.  It is at times an unbearable burden.
But for Jews, it is a burden we all share.  For rabbis are not supposed to be surrogates for the rest of us.  We are no closer to God, no holier, no greater healers, no more human or compassionate -- and the mitzvah of being there is incumbent on all of us.  Anyone with a conscience should be feeling the same burdens every night.  What more could I have done for my child?  What more could I have done for my friend?  What more could I have done for that stranger?  Who needs me now that I cannot possibly know?

I'm not asking you to share my burden; I can handle it. For in fact, it is a privilege to be entrusted with that responsibility.  While time is limited and I might sometimes collapse with exhaustion, our human capacity to love is infinite.  My work has helped me to understand that it is possible to love one's family with all one's heart and yet still have enough love left for everyone else.  As the demands on one's care grow, one's capacity to care also grows.  The heart is, after all, a muscle.  It gains strength when we exercise it.   I feel extremely lucky to be doing this sacred work.

So by calling on all of us to fulfill the mitzvah of being there, it is not to lessen my burden, but to help us all increase our capacity to love.  And all we have to do is show up.

We talk so much about Jewish literacy.  You might recall the sessions I taught a few years ago called "Davening for Dummies."    And many of us do feel Jewishly illiterate and uncomfortable.  But that is almost irrelevant in the end, because to fulfill the basic values of our faith all you have to do is be human.  Just smile and care and hug and empathize.  To be a good Jew, all you have to do is be.   And the more we do just that, the more everything else falls into place.

I admit, it's not always easy to be.  Sometimes we have to let down our guard and be vulnerable; for if one is truly to give love, one must be open to receiving it in return.  We have to relate to the other person with complete openness, with honesty and without the fear of embarrassment.  We have to show our weakness, even to strangers.  We have to let down our guard.  We have to admit to being fallible.  Sometimes that's hard, especially in a community where such an admission could have severe social consequences.  It's hard to let down one's guard when we always have to keep up.  But the rewards of such exposure are infinite.  Because the love is there for each of us to share.  We can each drink from that jar.
I implore you to be there: at minyans, services, hospitals, nursing homes and shivas; at Bar Mitzvahs -- even of those we're not invited to, at homeless shelters and World AIDS Day interfaith services; anywhere there is pain, anywhere there is need.  But when you show up, all of you must be present, at that moment, open to loving and being loved.

Did you know that to assure a well-attended funeral, Japanese families frequently place orders for actors to show up at the home pretending to be mourners, for the neighbors to see?  Afterwards, if the grave site is too far away, relatives can pay agency employees to visit it and keep it tidy, heading off gossip about an inattentive family.  One bride paid $10,000 for 40 fake friends and family.  To maintain their cover, all had been briefed on family history, hobbies and work.  The better actors even managed tears.  Some even delivered speeches at the wedding reception.  In this world, nothing is real; no emotion is genuine.

That won't do in the Jewish world, the world of being there.  Rabbi Avis Miller, who created a strong committee of those who visit the sick in her former congregation, writes of a famous psychiatrist who worked with severely psychotic patients, who visited the same patient every day.  The patient lay there, staring at the ceiling, never speaking.  After months of talking to the patient, holding his hand, giving him a taste of food, the doctor started to leave the room, thinking to herself, "I've failed. I'm no good."  Suddenly she heard a weak voice say, "Please stay." She turned, and when their eyes met, each saw tears.

 One elderly patient saved every card left by members of Rabbi Miller's Bikkur Holim (visitation) committee. When he died, the cards were found in an envelope labeled, "most treasured possessions."  All that mattered was to show up.
Showing up is hard.  How hard it is for those of us who fear illness to visit a hospital.  How hard it is for those of us terrified of mortality to visit a shiva house.  How hard it is for a childless couple to attend a friend's bris.  It's hard.  But it is beautiful.  It is the fulfillment of that word spoken by Abraham.  God calls to him to offer up Isaac atop Mount Moriah and Abraham answers, "Hineni."  Here I am.  That expression, heneni, echoes itself again and again in that epic story.  Each time the person is fully there: Abraham for God, Abraham for Isaac, Abraham for the angel.  That's all he had to say, and that's all we have to say: heneni.  I am here.  That expression has even found its way into the Musaf service on the High Holidays, as the cantor chants the Heneni, saying to God, on our behalf, I am here.  When I went to Hebrew school, that's how we responded when the teacher took attendance.  Heneni.  I am here.  Imagine the beauty of our sacred tongue: it teaches a prime Jewish value before the class has even begun!
A while back I was visiting an elderly woman at a local nursing home.  Her family is far away and her loneliness was palpable.  While it might be beyond anyone's capacity to resolve all of her inner turmoil, I could not get over the fact that a visiting companion from this temple would help her immensely.  "Where are the women?" she kept asking, indicating that years ago, the sisterhood did lots of visitations.  "Of course," she added, "I didn't do it at the time.  If only I had known then what I know now.  If only I could help others now, but I can't.  If only I'd known how important it is to have people visit."  A congregant is now visiting her regularly.
On the same day, I visited another congregant, who was about to undergo major surgery and needed help upon her return home.  So many are evicted from their sick beds long before they are ready to go home.  But this woman exposed her need, her vulnerability just enough to enable us to that fill that jar with our love; and thanks to another dedicated congregant and many kind volunteers, this woman had continuous support at home for well over a week following her return from the hospital.

That is what we are all about. 

It is wonderful that we are doing what many other synagogues have done by creating a Bikur Holim Committee.  This committee will consist of a dedicated group of congregants who have agreed to open their hearts for a very limited investment of time -- an hour a week maybe, or even an hour a month -- to visit fellow creatures in pain in local care centers and those who are shut in or sitting shiva in their own homes.  The investment in time will be minimal, but the return will be immeasurable.  This new committee will be called simply the "Being There" group, those who have elected to "pray with their legs" by going out to where the need is greatest.  Through their efforts, hopefully no congregant will slip through the cracks, and our embrace will extend far beyond the reach of our own congregation. We'll have four training sessions, to take place on consecutive Wednesday evenings beginning in about a month.  We'll learn how to approach a patient in a hospital or resident of a nursing home; what are the right things to do and say.  What do we say to mourners in a shiva house and how can our actions comfort them?  Even those who aren't sure about volunteering for this project could all learn from these sessions, which will be open to everyone.

I hope to also have some special healing services here, inviting in those who are suffering from illness or depression, those who are lonely and in need, both from within and outside of our congregation.   We need to let everyone know that we care; be they in cancer units or suffering with AIDS, be they in deep mourning over the loss of a loved one, or pained over the loss of a job or breakup of a marriage.  Those who are facing end of life issues and those facing midlife crisis; those facing life with his first set of reading glasses, and those no longer able to see their world through rose colored glasses.  Anyone who is in pain will gain from these healing services and our visitations.  No one would be embarrassed, because the list of those in pain includes all of us.  All of us unfortunate, and so, so lucky, to have been condemned to be mortal.

Of course, all our services are in fact Healing Services (especially Friday night, which is the most soothing moment of our week here).
Above all, this is our mission: those who walk through our doors must find only comfort and security here.  And we must reach out beyond these walls to find them, and to find one another.

I close with a prayer penned during the Civil War by an anonymous Confederate soldier:

I asked God for strength that I might achieve;
I was made weak, that I might learn to serve.           
I asked for health, that I might do great things;           
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.
I asked for wealth, that I might be happy;
I was given poverty, that I might be wise.      
I asked for power, that I might earn the praise of all men;
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life;
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things. 
I got nothing I asked for, but all I hoped for. 
Despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.   
And I am, among men, most richly blessed.


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