Remembering ‘whom the mitzvah is for’


Vayechi 5776

Rabbi Howard Voss-AltmanOne of the oldest mitzvot in Judaism is “bikur cholim,” which literally means to “visit the sick.” It is a mitzvah identified in our daily prayers, and is one of the most important obligations that a Jew is supposed to fulfill as often as possible. As any congregational rabbi would confirm, it is a mitzvah that is integral to our daily lives.  

As a brand new rabbi, I used to lead a monthly service at a local nursing home and, at the time, I felt a certain ambivalence about my role. I was just becoming accustomed to leading a prayer service and already most of my congregants were sleeping through the sermon. Actually, to me it felt more like an afternoon activity in the Catskills. Sandwiched between lunch and dinner, between the history of show tunes and bingo, Rabbi Howard was here for Shabbat and challah. 

At the time though, I never really made a sincere effort to meet the residents. I didn’t have a sense of their history – how they came to live in the community, who their children and grandchildren were, what their professions were, if they felt sad and lonely. I have since learned that leading services is just one part – perhaps the least important one at that – of visiting the sick and the elderly.  You see, the mitzvah cannot be found in the recitation of prayer – instead, we find it when we listen attentively to Bubbe’s stories, when we hold Zaydeh’s hand, when we greet Betty with a smile, and maybe even say goodbye to Sam with a gentle hug. As one rabbinic mentor taught me, “Remember whom the mitzvah is for.”

These memories lead me to our parashah, Vayechi, as our patriarch, Jacob, is nearing the end of his life. In this portion, he is attempting to find what has apparently eluded him throughout his life – a sense of peace and contentment with his family. As he contemplates his imminent death, Jacob calls for his son Joseph to visit him.  Joseph not only comes to visit his father, but brings his two sons, Menasheh and Ephraim, with him. Joseph understands that his presence will cheer his father, but that for comfort and smiles, nothing succeeds like grandchildren. Jacob asks Joseph to swear an oath, to take Jacob’s body out of Egypt and bury him with his fathers, with Abraham and Isaac. Joseph agrees to do so.  Indeed, he says to his father, “I will do as you have spoken.” 

“I will do as you have spoken.” That’s quite a statement, isn’t it? How many of us – adult children – have spoken words to that effect to our elderly parents? I know I haven’t. And Jacob’s request is hardly a token one. As Rabbi Gunther Plaut reminds us in his Torah commentary – the transportation of a deceased loved one today is a daunting prospect – imagine how difficult it was in Joseph’s day. Joseph does not hesitate, he does not waffle, he does not recount to his father all of the myriad tasks that he, as the Pharoah’s chief of staff, must accomplish.  He simply says, “It will be done.” 

My guess is that for most of the elderly or the infirm, such words are hardly ever heard.  Usually, when I ask seniors about their children, or their grandchildren, they speak with pride about their accomplishments.  But when I ask them about who comes to visit, they often hedge or change the subject, a sure sign that such visits are infrequent or perhaps nonexistent.

The truth is, that as we live longer – as we delay having our children until we are older – we find ourselves in the middle of the proverbial sandwich. When we are the primary caretakers – emotionally and physically – for our aging parents, and at the same time, we are caring for our all-too-dependent children, we are truly in that “sandwich” generation, caught between two generations, both of whom need our love and attention. And it goes without saying that our working lives are busier and more complicated than they were a generation ago, our kids’ lives are busier and more complicated than they were when we were children, and by the way, how about a few hours of personal time? 

As more and more people and events compete with each other for less and less time, choices have to be made. These choices are difficult, and they usually involve a measure or two of guilt. Yes, our elderly parents and grandparents feel neglected, yes they feel a sense of loss, and yes they feel a sense of isolation and sadness that they are often unable to articulate.

But Joseph asks himself two important questions – questions that perhaps we should ask ourselves, vis-a-vis our parents and our grandparents.  First, what do they need? In Jacob’s case, he asks to be buried outside the land of Egypt, with his father and grandfather. Joseph is able to agree. For most of us, the request won’t be quite that difficult – regular visits, regular phone calls, a sympathetic ear, and our presence – a presence that reminds them of our love and gratitude. 

The second question is, what would they appreciate? For his father, Joseph takes along his sons to visit their grandfather.  They come along, and Jacob gives them his blessing, once again expressing our covenant with God through the generations. It is a blessing we say to our boys – may you grow up to be like Ephraim and Menasheh.  Of course, today, the blessing may not come from our own family’s patriarchs and matriarchs. Rather, the blessing – and this is what they might appreciate – is in the time shared between grandparents and grandchildren; the blessing is the passing on of the family’s stories – from parent to child, from child to grandchild. The blessing is the visit itself – the encounter – the time together, the hugs and kisses, the gifts of companionship and memory. 

Will every visit lead to such dramatic events as they appear to in the Torah? Of course not. Like any great screenplay, the lives of our patriarchs and matriarchs are boiled down to their most significant moments.  Indeed, most of our visits will resemble our lives – a little comical, a little exasperating, a little sad, a little invigorating, and maybe, if we’re fortunate, a little insightful. But as my mentor said to me, “Remember whom the mitzvah is for.”

Let us thank God for the health of our children and our grandchildren, and if we have a parent or parents who are still with us, let us thank God for their continued health and welfare. And let us pray that despite our busy lives – or perhaps because of them – we can take time to honor our elders by our presence and by the presence of our children. 

Shabbat Shalom.