Our guiding principle for bikkur cholim—as chaplains, rabbis or people in the community—is this: when in doubt, show up.
There’s a debate regarding the source for the mitzvah of bikkur cholim. One opinion is that the source is Shemot 18:20, when Yitro says to Moshe, “v’hodata lahem et haderech yelchu vah [and you should tell them the way they should go].” The Gemara says that every word in this pasuk teaches us a different mitzvah. The word “yelchu” [they should go] refers to the mitzvah of bikkur cholim. Why is “yelchu” related to this mitzvah specifically? The Maharsha explains that you fulfill the mitzvah of bikkur cholim simply by going.
I spend a lot of time visiting with people. They often tell me they are disappointed that certain relatives or friends didn’t visit. I rarely hear anyone say they’re disappointed that someone visited. Err on the side of being there.
You have to use seichel and be sensitive, of course, not to be a burden. For example, the halachah says you should not visit the sick first thing in the morning because patients are often busy with doctors or at the end of the day, because they can be tired. Call ahead if you are not sure if it’s an appropriate time.
As a general policy, a visit need not be more than twenty minutes. The sick person is hosting you, and it can be very taxing on him or her. Even if you’re only visiting for five minutes, sit down if possible—it’s more respectful that way.
Chaplains have a rule, which really applies to everyone: we want the person we’re visiting to lead the conversation. Walking in and saying “How are you?” is not a great way to start a conversation. Instead, I always suggest starting with “I just came to wish you well.” Then, be quiet and let the person lead. Be a good listener. The three most important words you can use are “Tell me more.” This focuses the conversation on what the sick person wants to talk about, helping him feel that you are interested and care. Allow for awkward pauses and silence to give him an opening.
If the individual isn’t talkative, maybe you can update him or her on what’s going on in the community. Not lashon hara, of course, but help the individual feel connected. People in the hospital become isolated. You can enable them to transcend the four walls of their hospital room.
The worst thing you can do is try to impose your values, giving reasons “why” the person is sick, or trying to “fix” things. I have also seen visitors focus entirely on what they brought. People tend to bring little gifts to patients, because it makes them feel like they did something nice. But there are so many dietary restrictions when a person is ill, it can be complicated. And that’s not the point of the visit. I believe the number-one tool we have is ourselves. Our presence. Have the confidence to know that it’s your presence that matters most to the sick individual. Don’t feel the need to bring anything.
There’s a halachah that fulfilling the mitzvah of bikkur cholim requires saying a tefillah for the sick individual to recover. It can be simple, it doesn’t have to be a whole mi sheberach. Another part of the mitzvah of bikkur cholim is caring for the sick person’s family; asking what you can do to help will reassure the individual that his family is taken care of.
When it comes to bikkur cholim, everything is a case-by-case situation and every patient is unique. But don’t underestimate the huge impact you can have just by being there with someone.
Rabbi Jason Weiner is the senior rabbi and director of the Spiritual Care Department at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California.
Rachel Schwartzberg works as a writer and editor and lives with her family in Memphis, Tennessee.