The fifth of the Ten Commandments directs us to honor our father and mother. We should expect nothing in exchange. They have already rewarded us with the gift of life. In the Jewish tradition, honoring parents is the equal of honoring God. If visiting the ill, even one’s enemy, is deemed essential to the healing process (Nedarim 40a), how much more so is the importance of attending to an ill parent.
Judaism mandates that we visit the sick (bikur cholim), assuring the dignity of the patient and affirming the power of community. When we visit those who are ill, our job is to be present, kind, and ready to listen. To hold space for whatever they want or need to say; to take their cues about what they want to discuss; to let them rest when they need to – these are our jobs as well. All these responsibilities may become more difficult if the person one is visiting is part of one’s family. We all have roles that we play in our family systems: caregiver, rescuer, mediator, truth-teller, clown, the one who cheers people up, the one who picks fights, the one who makes peace. When someone is ill, those roles and their familiarity may lock old patterns in place.
Part of the work of bikur cholim with one’s own family is cultivating compassion for oneself amid the inevitability of sliding into those old roles. If you are visiting a family member who is ill, cultivate kindness both toward the person you are visiting, and toward your own neshamah (your own soul) as you do the visiting. You too are likely to need some gentleness and care.
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The blessing for the sick called The Mi-sheh-berakh. (This is also said at the end of the reading of the Torah during many morning services):
“May the One who blessed our mothers and fathers, God of Abraham and Sarah, Issac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel and Leah; and God of Moses and Aaron, Miriam and Solomon, send your blessing and healing to those of us who are ill, the one we pray for silently and the one I now mention by name _______, son or daughter of ______. Comfort them Holy One, and have compassion on them, and restore them to good health and strength. And send them a complete healing from heaven: A healing of the soul and a healing of the body. May healing come speedily to them, and let us say, Amen.”
Genesis 48 :1 -2
Some time afterward, Joseph was told, “Your father is ill.” So he took with him his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. When Jacob was told, “Your son Joseph has come to see you,” Israel summoned his strength and sat up in bed.
Things I didn’t know
That morphine is pale blue
sickly-sweet baby blue
like every cutesy sleeper
I didn’t want for my infant son.
That I would feel
like a mother bird
tenderly tucking the drops
under her waiting tongue.
That the gasp and hiss
of the oxygen pump
would be both comforting
That when I closed my eyes
by her bedside, trying
to envision her
enrobed in light
the vision would morph
to a white Chanel suit
and I would see her
wearing her life’s mitzvot
woven into a white pillbox hat
and a smart white suit
and white heels with open toes
and a cream-colored pedicure
vivacious and flirty
as a 1940s movie star
taking God’s hand,
ready for the honeymoon to begin.
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
A song of ascents. Out of the depths I call You, O LORD.
O Lord, listen to my cry; let Your ears be attentive to my plea for mercy.
If You keep account of sins, O LORD, Lord, who will survive?
Yours is the power to forgive so that You may be held in awe.
I look to the LORD; I look to Him; I await His word.
I am more eager for the Lord than watchmen for the morning, watchmen for the morning.
O Israel, wait for the LORD; for with the LORD is steadfast love and great power to redeem.
It is He who will redeem Israel from all their iniquities.