The instruction by airline personnel to “secure your mask before assisting others” offers a caution that can guide our moral life: that we must first secure ourselves before going forth to affect the lives of others.
Tolstoy wrote that everyone thinks of changing humanity, but no one thinks of changing himself. After all, it is much easier to involve ourselves in great causes and on behalf of people in distant places rather than undertake the laborious effort of self-improvement. We ought not start “out there,” but rather radiate out from within.
A preacher lamented an unsuccessful career: “At first, I thought I could change the world, but when it did not bend to my will I determined to change my community. Making but little headway there, I resolved to change my colleagues, but they resented my promptings. I knew I could transform my family, but it, too, proved resistant to my counsel. From the valley of one failure after another, I realize where I made my initial and foremost mistake: I should have started with myself.”
The path to universal change is through ourselves. In the Jewish tradition, we proclaim the necessity of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. But the sense of this term is also employed to mean repair of your own world; first inward, then outward.
Our first concern must be with our personal connection with God and maximizing our individual life. We are to attend to our personal situations and experiences, our shortcomings and deficiencies, before turning our searchlight outward to others.
Following a sermon in which the rabbi chastised his congregation for a variety of misdeeds, a worshiper approached and said, “Excellent sermon, rabbi. You really gave it to them. They really needed to hear that. I hope they were listening. They really need to change.”
But before we sally forth in examination of what others need to be and do, we must engage in the repair of what is broken or cracked, what is splintered or falling into disrepair in our own personal world.
MARK S. MILLER is the rabbi at Temple Bat Yahm in Newport Beach.