The LORD appeared to him [Abraham] 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. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, he said, “My lords, if it please you, do not go on past your servant.
One of my most formative experiences in rabbinical school was clinical pastoral education (CPE). In addition to my formal training, after my ordination I completed a year-long residency at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Manhattan. Although I was initially intimidated by this most sensitive and critical of clerical duties, I quickly grew to enjoy being a spiritual care provider: I like the energy of acute care settings, and I love working with people of all religions, challenging myself to deeply explore my own faith in order to help others.
Visiting the sick, bikkur holim, is one of the mitzvot demonstrated in this week’s Torah reading, Vayera. Abraham is recovering from his circumcision and relaxing by his tent when three people – messengers from God – appear at his door. They are visiting him at a very vulnerable point. He may still be in pain from the procedure, trying to understand the physical and psychological change it imposed and to digest the weight of the new responsibility it symbolized. Yet Abraham rushes to stand and greet the visitors. Why is he so eager to welcome these people? Why are we commanded to visit the ill at such a difficult time, and why do people want us there?
Many of the patients I saw in my pastoral practice were like Abraham. They sat up in bed, adjusted their covers and cleared space in their rooms. They apologized for their disheveled hair and their hospital gown. Some offered leftovers from their meal trays. They appreciated my interest in them, and even if they didn’t want to talk with me at great length, they were glad I stopped by.
Bikkur holim is a two-directional mitzvah. It involves the visitor making the effort to see the person who is infirmed, demonstrating that the visitor cares about that person’s well-being. It is also a chance for the infirmed person to take control of their space. Tidying up, concern over appearance, even offering leftovers, were signs of welcoming me into their space and lives. One very powerful lesson from my CPE experience was that a patient always had the right to say no to my visit. The chaplain is one of the few people in the hospital that a patient can send out of their room and with whom they can reasonably refuse to speak. It is important, I was taught, to give the patient that control at a time when everything else seems beyond their control.
Abraham’s brief interaction with his visitors had a lasting impact and influenced relationships for generations to come. Although I am no longer professionally engaged in pastoral care on a day-to-day basis, I will always value this pivotal aspect of my rabbinic calling. Each time I visit a patient, I have the opportunity to impact a person’s life and allow that person to impact my life. When we open ourselves to vulnerable moments as these, we have the chance to create lasting change for ourselves and others.