I was a very young rabbi. My first congregation in an idyllic suburb of Los Angeles. Paula was a young vibrant member of the congregation who had recently moved in to her “dream” house. She was surrounded by a grouo of good friends who socialized with and supported each other. Life was good. Until, of course, Paula came down with cancer. After a year of treatments, she came home to live out her last months in her home. Her family rallyed around her. Yet, for some reason, that close circle of friends fell away, leaving this woman isolated and alone.
I always come back to that episode when I encounter this Torah portion. The texts speak of skin diseases and eruptions or diseases that can even infect a home. The commentators write long explanations of these passages. A person diagnosed with these skin diseases was, after consultation with the priest who made the diagnosis, isolated outside of the camp.
In our experience working with older adults and families, we often have seen this idea of isolating older adults–espeically one’s who may be ill. At times, people are hesitant to visit. Perhaps they see themselves in that bed? Perhaps it is the underlying fear that we all share of our own mortality. Too often, as some of us have witnessed, even the best intentioned person will speak to this person as if they are a child. This “infantalization” is sad and demeaning and so very not in keeping with Judaism’s belief that one’s dignity must always be preserved–even unto the last moments of life. How we approach and speak and inter-act with a person does send a message.
Isolation breeds depression and we see that in so many cases. The redemptive act of presence is one of the highest of our “mitzvoth”. The tradition of “bikkur cholim” (visiting the sick) is included in this process of redemptive activities. We even include it the list of required practices that we pray for in the morning service; a prayer called the “Elu D’varim”: these are the things.
All of this goes back to a basic desire on the part of all of us–no matter what stage of life we are–to be part of a community, a family and a relationship. The older we get we are aware of the power of those things, the more we fear, at a root level of existence, being alone, cut off, isolated.
Rabbi Richard F. Address, D.Min