When the Bluzhover Rav was ill, one of his students wanted to come see him. “I want to do the mitzvah of visiting the sick,” said the young man. The Bluzhover Rav was not moved by this request. “I don’t want to be the object for you mitzvah,” he replied (I am paraphrasing). “Only come see me if you really want to come see me.”

We do have an obligation to visit the sick and it doesn’t depend on our mood. Yet if we do the mitzvah to satisfy ourselves our needs we will inevitably not do it right. Like all commandments of chesed (kindness), visiting the sick needs to be done with sensitivity and thoughtfulness. It is not about acquiring brownie points in heaven; it’s about taking care of an ill friend. It’s about doing a kindness for another human being. It’s about trying to figure out what they need, what would be helpful to them.

That’s why we have guidelines. That’s why Jewish law governs these matters. Because we get confused – even in the midst of trying to do what’s right. Let’s say you have a friend in the hospital. You rush into your car as soon as you hear the surgery is successful so you can be there to greet her in the recovery room. Are you sure that’s what she wants? She’ll be tired. She’ll probably look terrible. She may want to be alone. When you come she may feel the obligation to entertain you. She may feel embarrassed by her condition, she may feel physically wretched. That’s why we visit the sick when they want us to come and not when we want to go. We should inquire ahead of time and not go unless requested. We should adhere to the suggested visiting hours and not convince ourselves that we are exceptions to the rule.

Our visit is meant to give life to the ill person. If we go when we are not wanted, perhaps when they are tired and in need of rest, we may, God forbid, have the opposite effect.

Since our visit is about the needs of the ailing person, we should try to attend to those needs. Is there the kind of food they like in the hospital? Can we stop on the way and pick something up? Are they recovering at home but unable to cook? Can we bring by dinner? Can we do some grocery shopping for them?

While most of us feel we are good and caring friends and we step into the breach when needed, we must still to be careful and make sure it is really the need of the sick person that is being gratified and not our own desire to feel needed and useful. In addition, while it’s easy to visit friends, there are those without family or community who are in even greater need of kindness. If we can push ourselves to visit a person who has no one else to take care of him, we have done a particularly important mitzvah.

Visiting sick strangers is not for everyone (I personally can’t imagine doing it and can feel my tongue tying in knots at the thought) but it’s probably not as hard as I think and a lot more welcome. One of my daughters volunteered at a local hospital and she found that most patients were eager for the chance to talk and welcomed her visits. I’m giving myself a pep talk as I write!

We learn about visiting the sick when the Almighty visits Avraham after his circumcision. Our job in this world is to emulate the Almighty. We should certainly push ourselves to visit friends and once in a while we can give ourselves an extra push to visit lonely strangers – all the while making sure that our visits are what our sick friend or acquaintance would really appreciate.