I didn’t need to enter a hospital to learn about the mitzvah of bikkur cholim, visiting the sick; it was an integral part of my family background. I grew up with stories of my grandfather’s participation in the “Press Old Newsboys,” a group of businessmen who began as newspaper boys and had become successful enough to raise money for the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. Some people may have been inspired by this legacy; I was terrified.Did she make it out of there alive?

I remember looking at a framed newspaper clipping in my grandmother’s house: a picture of my mother and aunt as adolescents, smiling by the bedside of a young patient about their age, a blonde girl whose face I will never forget. I couldn’t help staring at the picture in fascination every time I visited my grandmother; I was obsessed with this girl’s fate. Did she make it out of there alive? Why does G‑d make some people healthy and some not? How does He decide?

The annual Children’s Hospital telethon further fueled my unhealthy obsession. Every year my family gathered around the television set to watch our city’s most venerated newscaster spend the evening going from ward to ward, microphone in hand, visiting all the young patients, trying to cheer them up. I was haunted by another young girl, one who actually lived in the hospital. She had become a “regular” on the annual telethon, until one year the newscaster announced grimly that she wasn’t living anywhere anymore. What was I supposed to think of that?

Almost any exposure to adversity used to trigger my obsessive thoughts about suffering. I thought growing up meant finally being able to let go of these unhappy thoughts and enjoy my life. But when I became observant, I realized that my obsession, painful as it was, had served a holy purpose: it’s what ultimately propelled me to incorporate Torah and mitzvahs into my life.

Not that I have answers now, but at least I understand that G‑d gave us Torah and mitzvahs to heal the world. And one of the ways we come to appreciate the universal need for healing is through the experience of individual suffering. The afflicted person has spiritual opportunities that arise from his or her challenges (may G‑d give us only positive challenges), and those who help alleviate others’ suffering have the merit of hastening the coming of Moshiach, a time when people won’t get sick or obsess over why people get sick. There are many spiritual benefits that characterize the messianic era, but let’s be honest, who wouldn’t be thrilled to enjoy eternal physical health?

But I’ve come to think that until that time arrives, life is just one long (or, unfortunately, not so long) effort on G‑d’s part to sensitize us to the reality of ein od milvado, “there is nothing but Him.” Neither our health nor our lives are in our own hands, and the fact that we have little control in these areas is one more way to recognize Him. Could that be why bikkur cholim is one of the handful of mitzvahs that you’re rewarded for in this world and in the next?

It It isn’t easy to visit a sick personisn’t easy to visit a sick person, especially for someone with my psychological profile, but I try to focus on what the mitzvah accomplishes. (I’ve been told that according to our sages, it actually removes 1/60th of a person’s illness.) I try to call the patient first, I try not to stay too long, and—this is my favorite rule—I try not to get myself all fancy for the visit. (Someone who is unwell doesn’t need to be reminded how good it feels to get dressed up to go out.)

The mitzvah of bikkur cholim simultaneously reminds us of our fragility and our power, our humanity and our G‑dliness—and our essential connectedness, no matter what condition we’re in.