One of the commandments in Judaism is bikur cholim, visitation to the sick. It is considered a great mitzvah to offer comfort to one who is suffering from illness.
Today I attended the funeral of a friend whom I had known for some years. His son teaches at a local university and has been in contact with me over the years.
While at the funeral, I met old friends, neighbors of the deceased, whom I knew from a former place of employment for 13 years, 11 very happy years and the last two miserable years with miserable people.
At the funeral service they inquired of my wife’s illness which is very grave. I was surprised to hear that they knew of her condition.
They explained that an American dentist named Bernstein had read an article I published in TOI in January and he forwarded a copy of it to the secretary in the institution where I had worked.
I did not expect bikur cholim from anyone there. That is not their nature nor their understanding of Jewish mitzvoth. But since so many knew of my wife’s illness, I could have expected at least a telephone call and an expression for her refuah shelemah. That is my understanding of derech eretz which is sorely lacking among many Jews.
In a previous place of employment where I served 20 years earlier, we received a number of phone calls and cards expressing concern and offering well wishes.
A colleague of mine who recommended me for filling his position there, one which he held for 19 years, told me prior to my going for an interview in 1993 “don’t expect any courtesies from them, not even a cup of coffee. That’s not the kind of Jews they are”.
His message proved to be correct. 13 years and never an invitation for a cup of coffee.
A Jew is obligated to help another Jew both in times of gladness and in times of sorrow. It is one of the mitzvoth which our sages required of us.
The non-Orthodox custom of most American Jews who pay shiva visits of condolence to mourners has become a circus-like event. Laughter and jokes are on the “menu” and little is done to comfort the mourner by recalling the good and noble deeds of the deceased.
In Israel, our custom is to grieve with the mourner, to absorb the pain and grief of his/her loss, to remain for a brief time and to depart with the words “haMakom yenachem etchem b’toch sha’ar avalai tziyon v’Yerushalayim” (may God comfort you among the mourners out of the gates of Zion and Jerusalem).
A shiva visit is the opportunity to offer sympathy, not to party and feast on the cakes and foods set on tables.
American rabbis have long tried to impart the significance of proper condolence visits but they fall on deaf Reform and Conservative ears. Orthodox observers, on the other hand, follow proper procedures as prescribed by our rabbinic teachers.
Derech eretz is a beautiful way of being a beautiful Jew. Pity that so many are lacking in it.