I’ve often said that my soul traits follow me around, but this is ridiculous. I am currently leading three Mussar groups, and my personal practice was out of sync with all of them. But after a very intense discussion about the soul trait of Loving Kindness in one of the parenting groups, some instinct told me to start on Loving-Kindness right away. We practice Loving Kindness by helping other people without the thought of reward even if they do not deserve it.
Mussar teaches that the world is built on acts of Loving Kindness. There are a few classical examples of acts of Loving Kindness, that include burying the dead, clothing the naked (usually interpreted as taking care of the poor), and visiting the sick. In each case, we are doing something that is uncomfortable, and we are not in a position to get anything in return.
Just a few days later, my cell phone rang when I was getting a decaf almond milk latte at Peets. It was my stepmother. “Oh no,” I thought. “She never calls my cell phone.”
As I feared, the news was not good:. My dad had a stroke.
My parents are divorced, and I lived with my father growing up. Suddenly this man who had raised me is weak on one side of his body, and is having trouble speaking. I feel numb in the moment, and very helpless living on the other side of the country. I wander in the street outside Peets, asking my stepmother to pause as the train blares its way into the station. It is surreal. Then I talk to him on the phone. He speaks with energy, and obvious mental clarity, but I don’t understand the words coming out of his mouth. They are slurred. Very slurred.
To be honest, I was confused about what I should do. I live in California, he lives in Syracuse. The emergency wasn’t so dire that I had to leave immediately. With my wife was in Europe, I needed to take care of the kids. I talked with my stepmother about when to come out. Our initial conversations were very much in head space – “practical considerations” about when I could be most helpful. This week, next week, the following week… Each had it’s advantages when I could be there to help with various things.
Then I sat down to journal that night, and a quiet voice spoke to me. It said “visit the sick.”
“Visit the sick” has no time qualifications attached to it. It purely exists within heart space.
And I knew what I had to do.
The voice of someone in my father’s generation came to me – “I don’t need an ancient Rabbi to tell me the right thing to do.” True. Mussar does not tell us the right thing to do. We already know it most of the time. As Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler put it, Mussar helps the heart understand what the mind already knows. Whether we like to admit it or not, the heart is in charge. The heart is stronger than the head.
So off I went to Syracuse less than 24 hours after my wife got back in town. I thought a lot about Maimonides rules for visiting the sick. They include:
- Don’t stand over the sick person, and don’t sit on their bed. Sit on the floor or a chair
- Don’t bring bad news, and don’t be Pollyanna about their condition either
- Bring a gift
- Ask permission
I am back home now. He is doing ok, but the road ahead is long. It was a hard trip, but not nearly as hard as as I thought it would be. Time flowed differently for me the last few days. I spent a lot of time just sitting, just being there.
These rules give me something to hold on to. And they remind me of a greater truth – we visit the sick to preserve human dignity, to sanctify life, and to honor the Divine Spark in all of us.