“ה’ יִסְעָדֶנּוּ עַל-עֶרֶשׂ דְּוָי; כָּל-מִשְׁכָּבוֹ הָפַכְתָּ בְחָלְיוֹ.” (תהילים מ"א:ד)
“God will support him on his sickbed; You [watch over him], turning his entire bed during his illness.” (Ps. 41:4)
In what way does God come to the aid of those who are ill?
There exists a clear connection between body and soul. Positive feelings — love, equanimity, trust — bolster one’s psychological and physical health. And negative thoughts, such as jealousy, anger, resentment and fear, have a detrimental impact on one’s health.
When one is ill, the body’s forces are greatly weakened, and one may fear that death is near. At precisely this point, the spiritual side gains strength and renewed energy. Positive forces are awakened from within. A critical, jealous heart is transformed into a heart full of compassion and generosity. One is drawn to holy aspirations, even though one felt estranged from such sentiments while healthy, due to preoccupation with wordly pursuits. Reliance in God grows, hope and faith flower. With this renewal of spiritual life, a sick person uncovers an unexpected source of strength.
The Talmud in Shabbat 12b describes this phenomenon with the statement that “The Shechinah [God’s Presence] dwells above the head of one who is sick.” When one is fit and absorbed in physical pleasures, the head — one’s thoughts and desires — can be a dark and lowly place. But when the body is weak, worldly pursuits lose their overpowering allure. Freed from their grip, an inner purity is awakened, and one’s perception of reality becomes clearer. The sick may reveal from within himself a hidden love of God and a yearning to follow His ways — on a level beyond that of healthy individuals. The head, the center of thought and reason, becomes a vessel for God’s Divine Presence.
In order to impress upon us to recognize the special holiness of those who are ill, the Sages taught that those visiting the sick should not sit on their bed. Rather, one should sit reverently before them, like a disciple who sits humbly before his master.
This strengthening of spiritual life — this is the assistance that God provides to the sick. “God will support one on his sickbed.” In fact, this is a basic purpose of illness. When one’s physical world comes crashing down, one is driven to reevaluate life, to look beyond the superficial appeal of physical pleasures and free oneself from the shackles of worldly distractions. Illness can become a transformative experience, a time of heightened spirituality, an opportunity for teshuvah and forgiveness. As the Sages taught, “One does not recover from an illness unless one has been forgiven for all of one’s sins” (Nedarim 41a).
(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. III, p. 32 on Shabbat 1:50)