The Talmud offers the following advice: “One who visits the sick should not sit on the bed or sit on a chair (if the sick one lies on a pallet on the floor). Rather, the visitor should wrap himself reverently and sit before him because the Divine Presence is above the pillow of the sick, as it is said: The Lord will sustain him on his sickbed (Psalm 41:4).” (Click here for Talmud in Hebrew and English)
When you visit someone who is ill, robe yourself in respect; do not presume to stand above. Do not stand on the presumption of your health. Do not heighten the distance between yourself and the one in the bed. You, the visitor, have much to learn from this moment. There is meaning in this place that is deeper and higher than what you bring.
Divine presence transforms the room, hovering over the bed. The sickbed becomes Sinai. Make your visit a pilgrimage to a place that offers the possibility of revelation, that offers insight of which you are not capable.
“The patient is always on the brink of revelation and needs an amanuensis,” says the philosopher. Your role, visitor, is that of an amanuensis—a scribe—a student ready to learn and to record the revelation that comes from a height that you cannot occupy. It is the one in the bed who stands at the peak of insight.
The Israeli poet, Zelda, says to her visitor:
You are mistaken
Even on the sickbed
The fog did not dissipate
Even when death approached me
As close as dread
I was still ten thousand miles removed
From the riddle.
(Click here for Zelda’s poem in Hebrew and English)
Zelda names the sickbed just as the Psalmist did—eres d’vai—the place that is dense with Divine Presence. You are mistaken, Zelda says, in your healthy speculations about the experience of illness and mortality. Even from the height of my experience I cannot see into the final mystery.
When you visit the sick, be certain to robe yourself in respect. Power, potency and Presence are in the room. Everything has meaning; nothing is “in-valid” and there is no invalid.
I daresay this hits the nail on the head and summarizes the essence of bikur cholim–not placing oneself above the sick person (in either sense). In practice, this should also mean that one should not presume to know what the sick person needs, but rather stay open to finding out. Also, when visiting the sick, it is important to remember that one’s own ego is of no importance.