We all know the drill every time we fly: we have to listen to the common shpiel from the stewards. Yes, you must place the oxygen mask on yoursef before you assist others. Ever wonder why? Well, I am sure you have figured it out: you can't save others if you first don't save yourself. This is a principle which is found throughout Judaism and the world as well. So why do we try to help others when we aren't well or truly able?
What we are confronted with is making sure that we are operating at maximum capacity. If we are not able to service ourselves, what good are we to those around us? If we aren't functioning to the best of our ability, then we are shirking righteousness. Our brothers' blood is spilling around us and we don't even have the means to help because we are stuck. Whether we like it or not, we are accomplices to failure and tragedy around us. When we turn the other way on our own inadequacies, we are turning away from our brothers' as well.
Hillel says, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?" --Talmud, Avot 1:14
So how concerned are we to help those around us? How concerned are we with the love of our neighbor and righteousness? If we don't help ourselves, how can we help others? Not only must we help our neighbor, but it is also incumbent upon us to help ourselves. And now - not when (later).
In the Mussar classic, The Path of the Just, Rabbi Luzzatto addresses the responsibility we have to be of assistance to our fellow.
The second of these two [fundamentals of piety], concerning man's relationship with his fellowman, deals with the measure of benevolence that a person should always bestow upon others, while at the same time he must ensure that no harm befalls them through him. This applies to their physical, financial, and spiritual well-being.
With reference to ther physical well-being, one must endeavor to assist all people as much as possible and to ease their plight. This is what we have been taught (Pirkei Avot 6:6): "And to share the burden of his fellow." And if he can prevent any bodily harm that threatens another person (or eliminate it [after it has materialized]), he must exert himself to do so.
One should give financial assistance to another person as far as one's resources allow, and in whatever way possible he should prevent any harm from befalling him. --Rabbi Chaim Luzzatto, The Path of the Just, Chapter 19
It is clear from this excerpt by Rabbi Luzzatto that our fellow's plight is of prime importance to us. But what underlies the ability for us to be able to help? If our fellow's physical, spiritual and financial well-being are the concerns, then in order to help this passage assumes we have the ability. We can't imagine helping someone in financial need if our very own finances are a disaster or we don't even have work. If we are not spiritual beings, how can we tell someone we will pray on their behalf? If we are not taking care of ourselves physically and are usually unavailable due to sickness or chronic ailments, then how can we help a neighbor with a home project?
This is not only irresponsible but foolishness. We are obligated to be fit and ready. And not only that, levels of procrastination in the mission to be ready bring guilt upon us when situations befall our neighbor and we are not available. Our excuses are not righteousness - they are merely a mask for laziness, disregard and apathy. As the quote above states, whoever saves a life is credited with saving a world. How many worlds could we save on a daily basis from the acts of righteousness that we could perform if only we were able or willing? And how many worlds will be lost because we didn't step in when necessary?
I have a sign above the last step of our stairway reaching the main floor in our home. It says, "Seize the Day." Simple enough. But whoa, what a tall order. For to truly seize the day, we must ask ourselves who will be for us, who we shall be for and when! As we contemplate righteousness, the seed to grow true righteousness in the world resides within all of us. But we first must take the "oxygen". We must take upon ourselves the task of setting ourselves right in every capacity. If we make sure we are spiritually, physically and financially fit, only then can we truly empower others to be all that they can be and be there in their time of need. We will save not only our souls, but also the world - many times over.
What are you waiting for? Seize the day - for you, and then for others.