Expanding the Mitzvah of Bikur Cholim

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Halakhic Positions of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik

by R. Aharon Ziegler

The very first reference to the Mitzvah of Bikur Cholim is found in Bereishit, 18: 1, “VA’YEIRA HASHEM EL AVRAHAM. Three men, who were actually mal’achim [angels] in the “guise” of men, appear to Avraham Avinu, whom the Midrash [Bereishit Rabba Ch.20] identifies as Micha’el, Gavri’el and Refa’el. HaShem sent three different angels because, by definition, a mal’ach is a function that HaShem wishes to have performed. Therefore, each function is a new angel, and since there were three missions to be accomplished in connection with Avraham and Sarah at that time, there were three angels to carry them out. As the Midrash states, “One angel does not perform two missions”.

In this case, Micha’el was assigned to inform Avraham and Sarah that they would have a son [18:4]; Gavri’el was sent to overturn Sodom [19:25], and Refa’el to heal Avraham and to save Lot from destruction of Sodom. Rashi states that healing Avraham and saving Lot, constituted a single mission because they both were for the sake of –rescue.

Rav Soloveitchik added a different level of interpretation on this issue. He said they were not two separate missions with a common purpose of “rescue”, but they were indeed one mission for the express purpose of healing Avraham. Healing is not merely a remedy for the physical body, Refu’at Ha’Guf, but healing must also incorporate the mental, emotional and spiritual aspect, Refu’at HaNefesh, of the patient. A patient with serious mental concerns and anxieties about parnassa [paying his bills] or about other illnesses and problems in his family, will find it difficult to have a complete Refu’at HaGuf. Avraham had not only the physical ailment from his Brit Milah but he also suffered the anxieties of concern for the safety of his nephew Lot. In order then for Refa’el to succeed in his mission of Refu’at HaGuf of Avraham, he had to also secure the safety of Lot, and thus complete his mission by insuring a Refu’at HaNefesh for Avraham as well.

The lesson for us to learn becomes obvious. When we have the opportunity to perform the Mitzvah of Bikur Cholim we should not focus exclusively on the Refu’at HaGuf [that’s the job of the doctors] of the patient but we also have to concern ourselves with the concerns of the patient who may need help in making telephone calls, mailing letters, or other areas outside the physical aspects. The Mitzvah of Bikur Cholim is not merely saying hello and expressing Refu’ah She’leima wishes, but goes far beyond that.

About Aharon Ziegler

Rabbi Aharon Ziegler is the Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Agudath Achim of Boro Park and the Dean and Rosh Kollel of Kollel Agudath Achim. He is the author of six volumes of Halakhic Positions of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

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