You shall follow after the Lord your God.
The talmudic rabbis understood this verse as mandating us to emulate God’s actions and attributes as much as possible (Sotah 14a). Therefore as God visited Abraham shortly after he was circumsised, thus providing the first instance of bikur cholim, we are expected to visit the sick.
This is not always an easy mitzvah to perform, maybe because our modern society tends to promote images of people who are young and healthy. In addition other people’s frailty and serious illnesses remind us of our own mortality.
Despite having seen my father’s visiting a number of sick and old people whether in hospital or because they were confined to their homes, it took me a while to start and perform this commandment.
Thus a few years ago when I tried to reach a cousin I hadn’t seen in years, her sister told me that she was in a psychiatric clinic due to bipolar disorders. I felt ashamed of having lost contact for some time and decided to go and see her.
A few months later when I visited an aunt, the latter told me that my cousin had been very happy with my visits and that knowing that her relatives cared had helped her a great deal. Besides we have kept in touch since. She now lives in Vietnam and I am delighted to know that she has found a more balanced way of life.
Two years ago, one of my aunts died but she was able to stay at home for very long thanks to friends and relatives who took turns to visit and stay with her for a few days. At the time, her children expressed their gratitude at all the generous people who had provided so much care and affection but also greatly helped them. One of my cousin lives in the States and was only able to stay with her mom for a few days while her sister has four children who were quite young at the time.
Both testimonies conforted me with the idea that bikur cholim is an essential mitzvah. They also taught me that showing your appreciation for the visits, if you are able to do so, will encourage visitors to perform other acts of gemilut chasadim (loving kindness).
For references and practical advice on the laws of bikur cholim, you can check A Code of Jewish Ethics, Volume 2 by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, pages 62-91.
It’s a Mitzvah, pages 62-73, by Bradley Shavit Artson is a very practical guide and might prove useful to those who feel uneasy visiting a sick person.
The Bikur Cholim Coordinating Council has a useful and exhaustive website.