February 14, 2023

Nedarim 39

Today’s daf (Nedarim 39b) includes a teaching of Resh Lakish who asks: רֶמֶז לְבִיקּוּר חוֹלִין מִן הַתּוֹרָה מִנַּיִן? – ‘Where do we find a hint in the Torah to visiting the sick?’. His answer is a verse from Bemidbar 16:29 (where God speaks just before the earth opens up in response to the rebellion of Korach, Datan & Aviram): אִם כְּמוֹת כָּל הָאָדָם יְמֻתוּן אֵלֶּה וּפְקֻדַּת כָּל הָאָדָם יִפָּקֵד עֲלֵיהֶם לֹא ה’ שְׁלָחָנִי – ‘If these men die the common death of all men, and [be visited after] the visitation of all men, then the Lord has not sent me’.
The Gemara then – understandably – asks how this verse is an answer to Resh Lakish’s question, to which Rava then replies by re-reading the verse as if it says: ‘If these men, the congregation of Korah, die the common death of all men who become ill, and are confined to their beds and people come to visit them; if that happens to them, what do the people say? They say: The Lord has not sent me for this task.’
Clearly this teaching is perplexing. In particular, because the Torah specifically speaks of God sending messengers to Avraham after he underwent his brit milah (see Bereishit 18:1) which is cited as a source by our Sages for the mitzvah of visiting the sick (see Sotah 14a). Moreover, we are also taught (see Bava Kamma 100a & Bava Metziah 30b) how Shemot 18:20 is also considered as a source for this mitzvah as part of the general duty of imitation dei. Given this, why does Resh Lakish quote Bemidbar 16:29 which is clearly such a cryptic proof that it requires Rava’s explanation?!
According to Rabbi Ephraim Oved (in his ‘Torat HaAggadah’ to Nedarim 39b), there is a clear reason for this verse being quoted which is, in fact, not to teach us about the mitzvah itself. Instead, it is to teach us about the ‘measure’ of the mitzvah. And how does it do so? Because Bemidbar 16:29 uses the words וּפְקֻדַּת and יִפָּקֵד (generally meaning ‘visit’ or ‘inspect’) which, as we learn in Rosh Hashanah 16a (while explaining the meaning of Iyov 7:18) refers only to a brief visit or inspection (פְּקִידָה עַיּוֹנֵי בְּעָלְמָא). What this comes to teach us is that when we visit the sick, ‘less is more’ in terms of the amount of time you are with the patient.
Unfortunately, many of us forget this rule. Given this, I’d like to close by quoting from Rabbi Dr. Jeffrey M. Cohen’s excellent booklet titled: ‘The Bedside Companion for Jewish patients’ where he writes:
‘We have to understand that hospital visiting is an acquired art. And very few people are masters of it. To be endowed with a soothing voice and a naturally tranquil spirit, and to be able to employ those in the cause of bringing succour to a patient, is a rare attribute. To be able to sense precisely how long to stay, and at what level, and about what topics to talk, is fundamental if the visit is truly to be welcomed. And one has to be very sensitive to the patient’s body language and especially the subtle changes in facial expression, and to know how to interpret them. Wherever possible, let the patient dictate the level and scope of the discussion, and never pry into the nature of the illness…And if one senses that the patient is tiring, or that his or her interest is waning, bring the visit to a close. “Perhaps you should rest now?” is always a useful closing gambit, giving the patient the opportunity either to intimate to you that, yes, they do feel that way and that they have appreciated your visit, or to tell you, convincingly, that they would like you to stay a little while longer.’
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