Hagar and Yishmael have just been expelled from the home of Avraham and Sarah. The first day is fine, as they enjoy the provisions Avraham packed for them. But now the water has run dry and they find themselves under the hot desert sun with no sign of food or drink for miles around.
Hagar cannot bear to see her young son in this sorry state and she casts him off to the side. They both begin to weep, crying out to Heaven for mercy. Sure enough, “God heard the voice of the lad as he was there.” An angel descends and reveals an oasis to Hagar and Yishmael. He blesses him with physical prowess and material prosperity and the young man eventually becomes the ancestor of powerful nations.
And indeed, all’s well that ends well. Despite the initial estrangement between father and son, Yishmael later returns to the monotheistic, ethical way of life of Avraham. The Torah tells us that he joined Yitzchak in burying Avraham following his passing.
אָמַר רַבָּה בַּר בַּר חָנָה: כִּי הֲוָה אָזְלִינַן בָּתְרֵיהּ דְּרַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר לְשַׁיּוֹלֵי בִּתְפִיחָה, זִימְנִין אָמַר: ״הַמָּקוֹם יִפְקׇדְךָ לְשָׁלוֹם״. וְזִימְנִין אָמַר לֵיהּ: ״רַחֲמָנָא יִדְכְּרִינָךְ לִשְׁלָם״. הֵיכִי עָבֵיד הָכִי? וְהָאָמַר רַב יְהוּדָה: לְעוֹלָם אַל יִשְׁאַל אָדָם צְרָכָיו בִּלְשׁוֹן אֲרַמִּי. וְאָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן: כׇּל הַשּׁוֹאֵל צְרָכָיו בִּלְשׁוֹן אֲרַמִּי — אֵין מַלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת נִזְקָקִין לוֹ, שֶׁאֵין מַלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת מַכִּירִין בִּלְשׁוֹן אֲרַמִּי! שָׁאנֵי חוֹלֶה דִּשְׁכִינָה עִמּוֹ. דְּאָמַר רַב עָנָן אָמַר רַב: מִנַּיִן שֶׁהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא סוֹעֵד אֶת הַחוֹלֶה? — שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״ה׳ יִסְעָדֶנּוּ עַל עֶרֶשׂ דְּוָי״. תַּנְיָא נָמֵי הָכִי: הַנִּכְנָס לְבַקֵּר אֶת הַחוֹלֶה לֹא יֵשֵׁב לֹא עַל גַּבֵּי מִטָּה וְלֹא עַל גַּבֵּי כִּסֵּא, אֶלָּא מִתְעַטֵּף וְיוֹשֵׁב לְפָנָיו, מִפְּנֵי שֶׁשְּׁכִינָה לְמַעְלָה מִמְּרַאֲשׁוֹתָיו שֶׁל חוֹלֶה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״ה׳ יִסְעָדֶנּוּ עַל עֶרֶשׂ דְּוָי״. וְאָמַר רָבָא אָמַר רָבִין: מִנַּיִן שֶׁהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא זָן אֶת הַחוֹלֶה? — שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״ה׳ יִסְעָדֶנּוּ עַל עֶרֶשׂ דְּוָי״
Rabba bar bar Ḥana said: When we would follow Rabbi Elazar to inquire about the health of a sick person; sometimes he would say in Hebrew: May the Omnipresent remember you for peace, and sometimes he would say to him in Aramaic: May the all-Merciful remember you for peace. The Gemara asks: How did he do this, pray in Aramaic? Didn’t Rav Yehuda say: A person should never request that his needs be met in the Aramaic language? And, similarly, Rabbi Yoḥanan said: Anyone who requests that his needs be met in the Aramaic language, the ministering angels do not attend to him to bring his prayer before God, as the ministering angels are not familiar with the Aramaic language, but only with the sacred tongue, Hebrew, exclusively. The Gemara responds: A sick person is different. He does not need the angels to bring his prayer before God because the Divine Presence is with him. As Rav Anan said that Rav said: From where is it derived that the Divine Presence cares for and aids the sick person? As it is stated: “God will support him on the bed of illness”. That was also taught in a baraita: One who enters to visit the sick person should sit neither on the bed nor on a chair; rather, he should wrap himself in his prayer shawl, and sit before the sick person below him, as the Divine Presence is above the head of the sick person, as it is stated: “God will support him on the bed of illness”. On a similar note, Rava said that Ravin said: From where is it derived that the Holy One, Blessed be He, feeds the sick person during his illness? As it is stated: “God will support him on the bed of illness.”
Why did God hear Yishmael’s cry, specifically? Rashi comments that God heeds the prayers of one who is ill more than those of anyone else. He was the thirsty one and so God listened to his cries. The source for Rashi’s comment, explains the Birkas Avraham, is our Gemara. Since the Divine presence is to be found at the head of the bed of one who is ill, when the ill person prays, God listens. In fact, says the Birkas Avraham, the verse should be read “God heard the voice of the lad as He (God) was there”!
Why are the prayers of an ill person so powerful? The Almighty’s presence leaves no room for any prosecuting angels or bad spiritual energy. As a result, prayers by the head of an ill person have greater power. That’s why it’s so important to endeavour to visit someone who is ill. A phone-call is helpful, but a physical visit has unparalleled spiritual power.
It should be noted, nonetheless, that there are occasions when the unwell individual is not interested in receiving visitors. Such instances must be respected. It’s no help to visit someone who doesn’t want visitors. On such occasions, phone-calls are certainly welcome alternatives. Moreover, during the current Coronavirus crisis, we must be incredibly cautious about spreading the virus, even unknowingly. And so the telephone is the preferred method of fulfilling the mitzvah of bikur cholim, at present.
Returning to God’s response at the head of an ill person, what’s interesting is that God’s presence doesn’t automatically help the patient’s recovery. He must still engage in prayer. Furthermore, the Divine presence appears to have greater power through the vehicle of the patient themselves. When they pray, there’s no stopping their prayers reach God, because He’s right there.
That doesn’t only go for prayers for the patient themselves. Their prayers are more effective for others too. So that’s why (under normal circumstances) it’s important to visit the sick. It’s not only beneficial to them – visiting the sick, our Sages tell us, removes one sixtieth of their illness – it can also have immense benefit to the visitor. Since the patient has special praying powers, his blessing has particular potency.
When I visit a patient in hospital, I will offer them a blessing for a speedy and complete recovery. Often, I will then ask them to give me a blessing. Why? Because of this talmudic teaching that God is right by their head with zero barriers to impede their prayers.
It’s very empowering to a patient when a visitor asks them for a blessing. Sometimes their feeling of self-worth has deflated, lying there feeling helpless. Asking them for a blessing demonstrates that you value what they can do for you. The visit is not a one-way-street. You need them just as much as they need you. That boost to their self-esteem alone can go a long way to improving their recovery horizon.
It’s important to remedy the sense of imbalance when you go and visit someone who is ill. By pointing out their special pipeline to Heaven’s blessing, you bolster the patient’s hope, strength, and sense of self-worth. May your hospital visits leave both you and the patient feeling reinvigorated!