As our lives become more and more dominated by social media–Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.–much is being discussed about the role of these media vis-à-vis human relationships. Are we becoming more distant from each other? Do we take more liberties and neglect social mores when we are sitting behind a keyboard or the touch screen of a smartphone? Do we find it more difficult to relate face-to-face when we are used to status updates and 140-character messages?

Social media is here, there is no denying it, so we are wise to embrace it. Indeed, one of the thrusts of my Rabbis Without Borders fellowship is the use of new technologies to spread ancient wisdom, using social media to build community. These are new tools for communication, and if our goal is to teach Judaism in a meaningful way and build dynamic community, then it is important to use social media and the tools they offer.

And that is the key–they are tools. They can be used for the purposes we design. There is great potential, and I do believe that social media has the opportunity to bring us closer in new ways that then enhance-not replace or water down-real, deep, meaningful human relationships. My recent experience with hospitalization, illness and recovery opened my eyes to these new possibilities.

Gmilut Hasadim, acts of lovingkindness, is a category of actions our tradition teaches are incumbent upon us as human beings. Beyond acts of justice and righteousness (tzedakah), which dictate our requirement to care for those in need and look out for those less fortunate, gmilut hasadim are basic acts of kindness and care that can and should be shown to all people, irrespective of social status or financial need. (This is why the Talmud teaches that they can be considered even more important that tzedakah) These include celebrating with a married couple, burying the dead, comforting the mourner, welcoming guests and visiting the sick.

It is this last one that concerns me at the moment–visiting the sick or, in Hebrew, bikkur holim. The mitzvah of bikkur holimrecognizes that caring for those who are ailing, offering comfort to those who are ill, are important acts we can do for one another, and that spiritual healing is important for physical healing. Tradition teaches that bikkur holim was carried out by God in the Torah, so for us to do it in our own lives is to embody the divine spirit.

Over time, rules and guidelines have been developed over how one should perform bikkur holim: we are not to endanger ourselves by visiting someone who is contagious; we should not visit in early morning or late at night; we should be mindful of one’s position in the room and not sit on the bed; we should keep our visits brief, and return when we can; we should be visiting a patient throughout the entire course of an illness; we should offer a calming tough, words of support and prayer; and we should take the patient’s needs into account at all times, listen to what he or she says and we are not to visit someone if it would cause him or her distress.

While I have studied, taught and performed bikkur holim as a rabbi, I had the opportunity to think about bikkur holim as a patient. This past January when I was ill from meningitis I was able to experience what I as a patient found healing and supportive. I did have some visitors, and Yohanna was of course a constant presence, but ultimately I didn’t want too many people coming by. Sometimes having visitors as a patient is a burden, for there is the need to engage in conversation and share details of what happened again and again. I did have some visitors come by and I appreciated each and every one, but when I was asked whether or not I wanted visitors, I felt OK saying no.

Which is where social media and technology come in. I received many email messages of care and support and these boosted my spirits tremendously, especially since, unlike a phone call or visit, I could read them over and over again. And Facebook proved to be a tremendous tool for bikkur holim. Through the interactive nature of Facebook I was able to broadcast to a large number of people how I was doing, the details of what happened, and the arc of my recovery. And I was able to post pictures of when I got up to walk around the hospital for the first time, and sitting in the car on my way home. Each comment, response or “like” to these updates was an act of bikkur holim, each one an important part of my spiritual, and physical, healing. Even now, as I continue to run into people who also are part of my Facebook network, they ask how I am doing and check in on my health.

As I’ve shared with people how important a role I felt Facebook played in hearing from so many people, they have shared with me how important it was for them to see my updates and hear how I was doing, without having to seek out the information. And to them seeing pictures was particularly meaningful. To know this exchange took place was tremendously powerful for me–it reminded me how much people cared for me, and how much I care for them. Moving past this experience, I feel that these acts of gmilut hasadim, carried out over social media worked to strengthen the bonds I feel with my family, friends and community. These tools facilitated communication during a difficult time, and added new depth to these relationships.

Social media are tools, it’s all about how we use them. Yes there is the possibility to grow more distant and lose the power of direct relationship. But there is also the possibility to build a richer, more tightly knit community. Ancient Jewish wisdom teaches that bikkur holim and other acts of gmilut hasadim are some of those deeds which bring us closer together as humans. And now we have contemporary means of fulfill them.

So, how else can we use these tools to build a richer Jewish community?

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