A kind word – or sixty!

Behar / Bechukotai - A kind word - or sixty!
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Behar / Bechukotai: Leviticus 25:1-end

"If thy brother be waxen poor… then shall his kinsman… redeem." (Leviticus 25:25)

The question, at first blush, would seem to be very simple: what does it mean to be poor? From this, we should be able to figure out how to "redeem" another from their poverty. Of course, we get five answers, of which the last is in some ways the most important – the "closing." Listen:

This bears on the text, Happy is he that dealeth wisely with the poor; the Lord will deliver him in the day of evil  (Ps. 41:1). Abba b. Jeremiah in the name of R. Meir said that this refers to one who enthrones the Good Inclination over the Evil Inclination. Isi said that it refers to one who gives a perutah  (a tiny amount of money – 1/10th of the cost of a loaf of bread) to a poor man. R. Johanan said that it refers to one who buries a meth mizwah  (someone who died a pauper, without family to manage the burial). Our Rabbis say that it refers to one who assists a person escaping from tyrants.

R. Huna said it refers to one who visits the sick. For, said R. Huna, if a person visits the sick, a reduction of one-sixtieth part of his illness is thereby effected. They pointed out an objection to R. Huna: If that is so, let sixty people come in and enable him to go down into the street? He answered them: Sixty could accomplish this, but only if they loved him like themselves. But in any case they would afford him relief.

Midrash Rabbah – Leviticus XXXIV:1

The sages amended the full verse to teach their lesson, but it helps to have the full text before us. Robert Alter renders the following translation:

"Should your brother come to ruin and sell his holding, his redeemer who is related to him shall come and redeem what his brother sold."

This is a very clear circumstance: should someone fall so far that they have to pawn what little they have left to survive, then their closest relative should redeem their belongings from the broker and return them to their ruined relative. This is the obligation of family, however we define the boundaries of family: we must reach in and lift up the fallen, at our own expense. Throughout it all, we are given the metaphor of redemption: the "ruin" is a bondage to which the poor unfortunate has been consigned, and we must function as redeemer.

Clearly, the Sages wanted to extend this lesson beyond mere financial ruin and the traditional boundaries of family. How do we know this? First, by the proof text: they extend the lesson to all the poor, and identify each of us as obligated to take action. Second, by the examples: only two have to do with money.

The first four examples of ruin – by gossip or jealousy, financial loss, or injustice – are worthy of consideration, and are left, as they say, as an exercise for the reader. The last – ruined health – gets the lion’s share of the midrash’s attention, and therefore is what I will consider here.

First and foremost, consider the ruin that lost health can bring: it invades every dimension of our lives, intruding on the simplest of tasks. What is the solution? Remarkably, it is not turning to G!d for relief – it is the support of others that is called for!

Notice that it is not financial support that is mandated, but visiting the sick – in Hebrew, the mitzvah of bikur cholim  – is what is required. To which is added this beautiful proposition: that a single visit takes away 1/60th of the illness!

So, the skeptics ask, would sixty people visiting heal the person? Only, says Rav Huna, if they each loved the stricken one as they loved themselves. But in any event there would be a benefit!

So we know that visiting the sick brings a measure of healing, and of course this is a laudable activity. Surely, though, there is a deeper meaning!

Remember the metaphor of redemption, and that the p’shat  (simple meaning) of the verse has to do with buying back a relative’s goods from a pawn broker (or the like). How is visiting the sick like this?

A key to the answer comes from from R. Huna’s final retort, that we must love the stricken one as ourselves. Each parent knows the agony of having a sick child, how we would gladly take on the illness if only it would leave our offspring: please G!d, we pray, take the fever from her and give it to me! Just bring her relief!

When we visit the ill as one who truly cares, we take on some of their pain, some of their ruin – just a sixtieth perhaps, but some. And in so doing we gain a new appreciation of the challenges faced by all who are stricken, and – if we are able – a renewed vigor to helping those less fortunate than we. What is striking about this experience is that we realize we cannot cure them: at best, we relieve a sixtieth of their problems! But, by truly taking on some of their pain, we find a new strength to help others.

Where does this strength come from? Surely not from the one we visit, for they are gaining strength from our visit! No, that is the miracle of bikur cholim:  it opens the gates for G!d’s healing strength to enter both lives: that of the visited, and the visitor.

And therein lies the mystery, and beauty, of G!d’s love.

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