Picture the last time you heard these words: “Please be sure to securely fasten your mask first before attempting to help others.” Did you even notice the flight attendant speaking (assuming it wasn’t a video presentation)? Did you actually watch the video? While possibly in denial about the risks of air travel (though not the point of these musings!), this is perhaps the most cogent piece of instruction in the pre-flight litany. It is really a very selfless teaching: you won’t be any good to anyone else if you become unconscious.
We don’t always have to pass out from lack of oxygen to be ‘living unconsciously’. Progressing through our day mindlessly we may be alive and moving, but not really paying attention to all that crosses our path and our awareness. For me, the reading of the passages of the Book of Leviticus – seemingly dry, problematic, difficult, uncomfortable, messy, awkward, and/or outdated – I try to dig deeper, beyond the chaotic rituals of burnt offerings or the complex layers of prohibitions to seek lessons of mindfulness and of Mussar (Jewish spiritual-ethical practice) to inspire me through my week.
Returning to the pre-flight instructions, I think that is the principle underlying a thread of this week’s Torah portion, in chapter 16 of Leviticus. Aaron, the High Priest, is called upon to perform rituals to atone for the sins of the people of Israel. However, before Aaron can perform the rituals on behalf of the people, he has to make offerings of atonement for himself and his own household. The Talmud teaches: ‘Improve yourself first, and then you can improve others’ (Sanhedrin, 18a). Put your own mask on first; attend to your own spirit, in order for you to be most effective in your life and the lives of those around you.
In Leviticus 16:30 we read: “For on this day atonement shall be made for you, to purify you of all your sins; you shall be pure before the Eternal.” This, then, is the intent of this set of rituals. It is the purpose that we still hang on to, in our observance of Yom Kippur, its nascent beginning also described in this portion, in the prior verses. Of course, the mask analogy is invoked only in the case of an emergency; I contend that this is a valuable principle for daily living. We need to reach for those things that will anchor, sustain and enrich us in order to be the best that we can be for those we care for and care about. As we prepare for Pesach in the coming days by removing the chametz – the physical and spiritual crumbs that muck up our homes and ourselves – perhaps you can envision that ritual to be your own oxygen mask, sustaining you, so that you can be ready to assist others to be sustained and inspired by our people’s story of redemption.
[Acharei Mot 2014 - Shabbat Hagadol :The Shabbat before Pesach]