There is a Jewish tradition that a single visit to someone's sickbed takes away one sixtieth of their illness. The ancient sages understood that just being in the presence of another human being can lift a person up. In one legend we are told that when Jacob was dying, his son Joseph came to visit him, and when Jacob heard that Joseph was coming, he was strengthened. He wasn't miraculously cured--he was dying of old age--but he was strengthened by the visit.
I have witnessed this with my own eyes. I have seen cancer patients moaning in pain who became animated and exuberant at the sight of a visitor's presence.
Sometimes, just by being there, we can actually save a life. But even when there is no hope of a cure, being there is a way to help ease someone's suffering.
There is a beautiful legend that describes God coming to visit Abraham when he is in pain after his circumcision. What is fascinating about this scene is that God goes to all the trouble of visiting Abraham but doesn't cure him. You would think that God, after all, could just repair the wound. But that is not what God does. God simply offers the healing power of comfort, of being by Abraham's side in a time of pain.
A community of faith can provide more than support when we are lonely. The members of a faith community can strengthen our resolve to heal, can link their prayers to ours, and can restore us to faith. They can envelop us in caring and love.
Max Polsky is 101. He's gone blind and he's not always coherent, but his memory is as clear as pure water. He knows the entire prayer service by heart. And he's been attending services at Mishkon Tephilo with his wife Ethel for as long as anyone can remember. When I first met Max, he took me aside and asked me about tending to his funeral. Of course, I agreed. But that was nine years ago.
A couple of years ago Max stopped coming to services. His health was deteriorating, and it became increasingly difficult for Ethel to bring him. But the members of Mishkon Tephilo were not ready to write Max off. On Rosh Hashanah, after they had spent six hours praying in the hot, unair-conditioned sanctuary, a group of people walked--over a mile, in great heat--to Max's house. They placed Max and Ethel on chairs and carried them into their backyard. They encircled them and, for Max's benefit, repeated the prayer service they had just completed. They blew the shofar, the ram's horn that is traditionally sounded on Rosh Hashanah, held hands, and danced around them until darkness fell. Max knew all the words and joined in. He clapped and sang solo renditions of Yiddish folk songs, including all the verses that no one else could remember, but he couldn't see the tears streaming down the faces of those who had come to bring him joy. The sight of his happiness moved them more than he would ever know.
Not everyone is as fortunate as Max was. Sometimes there is no one to offer us comfort. What if we have been abandoned and betrayed? What if we have alienated those who were once willing to comfort us? What do we do when we have no person to turn to?
In the book of Isaiah, God says, "It is I, it is I, who am your comfort." I love this verse. It reminds me that God is with us even though we may feel abandoned and utterly alone. It reminds me that although others may not understand the darkness within us, God knows our deepest thoughts and our deepest hurts. We don't have to explain. We don't even have to say a single word. God knows our hearts, God is pained by our pain, and God's message to us is: "I am here." That alone is a comfort.