Torah Thoughts: Parashat Vayechi 5779
By Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
How to Take from the Sick One-sixtieth of His Suffering
The parasha for this week begins by telling us that Jacob was old and the time for him to die approached. When he became very ill, his son Joseph immediately went to visit him, taking with him his two sons. Jacob was lying on his bed, weak. At that moment, the Torah tells as,
And [someone] told Jacob and said, “Behold, your son Joseph is coming to you.” And Israel summoned his strength and sat up on the bed (Genesis 48:2)
The translation in English here reads “And Israel summoned his strength” (Israel is another name for Jacob). However, the original Hebrew uses the word vayitchazek, which literally means “he became stronger.” Therefore, an appropriate way of understanding this verse is that when Jacob heard that his son had come to visit him, he became stronger.
It seems that Joseph’s visit coincided, or even caused, old and ill Jacob to gain some strength. Could this be true? Indeed, this is precisely how our sages explained the text; when Joseph came to visit Jacob, Jacob become stronger! In fact, our sages viewed this incident as an example of a general principle: When we visit a sick person, we help him/her to recover and becoming stronger. This principle is enunciated in the Talmud in the following way,
Rav Aḥa bar Ḥanina said: Anyone who visits an ill person takes from him one-sixtieth of his suffering (Nedarim 39b)
According to this principle, when Joseph visited Jacob, he took from him one-sixtieth of his suffering. That is why Jacob felt stronger and was able to sit up in his bed. The Talmud explains that every time we visit a sick person, we take from him/her one-sixtieth of the suffering. However, if a second person visits the sick, then the second visitor takes from the patient one-sixtieth of the remaining suffering, not another one-sixtieth of the original suffering (if not so, sixty visitors could make the suffering of a sick person disappear completely, as the Talmud suggests!).
This is one important value of the mitzvah of bikur cholim, visiting the sick. Every time you visit someone who is ill, your presence and companionship alleviate the pain. This is one of the reasons why it is so important to visit a sick person.
By the way, from the episode of Joseph vising his sick father Jacob, our sages learned another important lesson related to visiting a sick person. We read in the verse quoted earlier that Joseph came to visit Jacob, but he did not directly enter to his father’s room. Instead, someone told Jacob first that his son had come to see him. From here we learn that we should never enter the room of a sick person without announcing our presence because the sick person may not be ready to welcome us. When a person is sick and indisposed, we must respect his/her privacy and dignity.
So, next time you wonder if you should visit a relative or a friend who is sick, remember Joseph visiting his father Jacob and go ahead and visit the ill person Let the sick person know you will visit him/her and get ready to alleviate his/her suffering.