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The Wounded Healer

by Harold M. Schulweis

A discussion in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a) deals with the signs of the coming of the Messiah.

"When will the Messiah come?"
"Go and ask him yourself."
"Where can I find him?"
"At the gates of Rome."
"By what signs will I recognize him?"
"He is sitting among the poor and the suffering sick."

While others untie the bandages that require dressing all at once and then re-bandage them together, the Messiah unties them and re-bandages each of them separately. For he thinks to himself, "Should I be wanted, it being time for my appearance, as the Messiah? I do not want to be delayed."

The Messiah image presented in this episode is not of a supernatural being waiting in the heavens. He is not found in the affluent palaces. The Messiah is in the marketplace, he is at the gates of Rome, in the dusty streets among the poor and the sick, among the lepers.

The Messiah is not a miracle worker. He does not wave wands, he does not walk upon the waters. He is no magician. He takes care of the sick one by one, wound by wound, bruise by bruise, sore by sore, bandage by bandage. The Messiah is a healer of men and women.

Some interpret the passage of the bandages to refer to his own wounds, that he places bandages on his own bruises. For the Messiah is not a perfect and whole human being. He is fallible and fragile. He has his own sores. As it is written in Isaiah 53, "He was a man of sorrows, despised and rejected, acquainted with grief." He is the wounded healer. Why should the Messiah be imagined as one in pain? Why is the healer himself wounded? Why is God Himself depicted in rabbinic literature as one in pain, homeless, His temple burned by Titus? Perhaps it is to teach us that those who comfort and console and heal are themselves persons who have experienced the pain and anguish and fear of sickness. The Messiah is not solitary figure out there. but a healer of the human spirit here and potentially within us all. The Messiah as healer brings us down to earth. That earthliness of the Messianic idea is exemplified in the rabbinic wisdom that declared that if you are in the midst of farming and you hear it announced that the Messiah is coming, first plant the seed and then go out to meet him.

If visiting the sick removes one sixtieth of the pain of the illness, he who visits the sick is one sixtieth of the Messiah. The "mevaka cholim" must above all else possess the wisdom of empathy. It is no easy task for the healthy to imagine the world of the invalid. In that sense the wounded healer is ideal.

Before my illness, I functioned as a visitor to the sick. I do so because it was my duty, my obligation. It is what a Jew does. But I must confess that I really did not understand the heart of the patient. But lying in the hospital and being visited I learned a number of things, what to say and what not to say. Some of these insights I would like to share with you.

I learned, for example, not to say – however well meaning – "I know what you're going through," because in fact, I do not know. I do not know your pain, your fright, your loneliness, your anxiety, your anger, your sadness. Oddly enough, in telling you that I know what you are going through, I am inadvertently robbing you of the uniqueness of your own grief. No one knows the soreness you feel.

I have also learned not to be so anxious to cheer up the patient nor, for that matter, to rush to comfort the mourner. The healer who visits another human being has to withdraw into himself. This is what the mystics called tzimtzum, the act of self contraction. The self-withdrawal of the healer allows space for the patient. Self-withdrawal is difficult because we want to perform magic. I want to save you. But the healer must be modest. I must learn that I don't have to perform miracles, I don't have to snap the patient out of his mood, I don't have to come with jokes or anecdotes or great globs of wisdom. The most important talent the visitor to the sick possesses is embedded in the first word of the six words that we pray twice daily. Sh'ma —Listen, hear, pay attention. "To hear" is difficult precisely because one wants so desperately to help. But in visiting the sick as in comforting the bereaved, I have found great wisdom in the statement from The Ethics of the Fathers, "All my life I have grown to discover that there is nothing better for the body than silence."

We make more mistakes in speaking than in silence. After my illness, I have learned what not to say. I have learned not to say "Don't be afraid," "Don't worry," because the patient has a right to be afraid and to be concerned. Somehow my counsel "Don't be afraid" suggests that I, the visitor, am fearless, and that by comparison he is weak. Now when the occasion occurs and I am asked how I felt before the operation and after, I tell the truth: I was afraid, I felt alone, I was confused, I was anxious, I was self-pitying, I was resentful.

Let the patient be a patient. “Patient” in Latin comes from the root "pati," which means to suffer. Let the visitor be compatible "cum pati" to suffer with the patient.

I come to this patient as a friend. It is interesting that in one of the codes of the Shulchan Oruch, the Iserles gloss adds, “Make sure that you send a friend and not an enemy to visit the sick lest the patient suspect that his enemy gloats over his misfortune.”  Come as a friend. What is the definition of friendship? Rabbi Bumam once said, "I learned the meaning of friendship by overhearing a conversation between two Polish peasants in a tavern. They were somewhat inebriated and one said to the other, 'Are you my friend?' and the other answered, 'Of course I am.' And he continued, 'Where does it hurt me?' And the other said, 'I do not know.' Then the first man responded, 'Then you are not my friend.'" Rabbi Bumam continued, "To be a friend is to know where the other hurts."

Friendship entails empathic intelligence and the modesty of self-withdrawal. A section in the Yoreh De'ah informs us that a person who visits the sick should not sit on his bed nor or a bench. I quote the passage from the Shulchan Oruch, Yoreh De'ah 335:  "He who visits the sick should not sit on the bed or on a chair or on a bench. He should cover himself and sit before the invalid at his feet. When the invalid lies on the ground the visitor should not be seated higher than he is. But if the invalid lies on the bed, the visitor may sit on a chair or on a bench." To me it means that the visitor must be aware of the sense of helplessness of the sick, and that to the sick laid prostrate on his bed, the visitor is powerful, healthy, erect. To sit on the bed may be seen as a gesture of confidence and superiority. So the codes add, "Do not sit above him because the divine presence rests above the head of the patient. Though he be mute and paralyzed, he is not abandoned.” The dignity of the patient is a matter to be kept in mind. Why is the abbreviation used for the name of Adonai two parallel Yuds? When one Yud, when one Jew, is close to another Jew, when one gives another his hand in loving support, God's presence is with them both. The two Yuds must stand side by side for it to designate the name of Adonai. One cannot be above the other. When one is above, the name of Adonai is broken.

The visitor must listen. He must know what not to say. The Talmud says that if a death occurred to a relative of a sick person, the visitor must not bring him that information lest he become confused and depressed. One is not to tear the clothing of mourning, and one is not to cry or eulogize the dead before him, for one must be concerned lest the patient become afraid that he may die of the same thing. So the comforters must be silenced. I recall well-meaning visitors who came to give me an update on life outside. and informed me of the sicknesses and deaths among the members of the congregation. Perhaps they thought "much sorrow is half-consolation.” They were wrong.

The patient hangs on every word. Therefore our speech must be guarded. I recall in discussing the forthcoming operation with doctors who tried to assure me that the operation was not that risky. "Let me assure you that it is more dangerous to cross Ventura Boulevard than to undergo this operation." The only thing the doctor managed to achieve was to add an additional fear to my existent fears. I still remain apprehensive before crossing Ventura Boulevard.

I also recall how I reacted to the counsel of well meaning people who told me to take it easy, not to work too hard, to slow down. Oddly enough, that counsel boomeranged. When I was sick, when I felt weak, my deepest desire was not to take it easy. My dream was to work, to be involved, to be engaged and decidedly not to take it easy, because work and excitement and enthusiasm and involvement are the signs of health.

Empathy — the wisdom of the visitor-healer. The book of Codes tells us not to visit the sick during the first three hours of the day, because in the early morning his sickness is not as harsh as it is normally. The visitor may think that it is unnecessary to ask for God's compassion for him since he is looking so well. Translation, "You look terrific. You look very well." And the patient thinks, "Does he think that I am faking, that I am malingering, that I am pretending illness? What do you mean I look so good? I feel terrible." Out of this emerges the sardonic epitaph on the tombstone: "I told you I was sick."

Empathy.  Don't visit the patient in the last three hours of the day, because then we may despair from asking God's compassion. The morning and evening hours for the hospitalized patient are not the best.

What is needed from the visitation? Not wisdom, not cheer, not melancholy, not theology.  Only presence. A section of the Talmud Berachoth 5b says that when Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba fell ill, Rabbi Yochamam visited him. Rabbi Yochamam said, "Are your sufferings welcome to you?" And Hiyya said, "Not them and not their rewards." The visitor then said, "Give me your hand." And he gave him his hand and raised him up. The Talmud asked the great Rabbi Yochamam, "Couldn't he raise himself? Why did he ask for the hand of the other?" The Talmud answers "Because a person cannot free himself from jail."

We begin with the talmudic episode of the Messiah at the gates of homes. "When will he come?" the rabbis asked. "Today," is the answer. But the day has come and gone and he has not come. Have you deceived us? No. "Today, if you hearken to my voice.”  Those who serve on the Bikkur Cholim, those who heal the body and heal the soul of the sick, are the hands of God, the messengers of the Messiah, the wounded healers of those who suffer and await our coming.

* This document, or any portion thereof, may not be reproduced without the written permission of the author.


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