What do you do when you’re a world-class airline without a world-class bank account? This was the question facing American Airlines in 1981. Just two years earlier, Congress passed the Airline Deregulation Act, bringing in massive new competition, lower ticket prices, and a business climate that threatened to destroy the old established airlines like American. The company lost $76MM in 1980, and now found themselves without any cash, when borrowing was no longer an option with interest rates in the double digits.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, so American Airlines introduced a frequent flier miles program to try to lure new customers, and with it they introduced the “unlimited AAirpass.” For $250,000 ($560K in today’s dollars) anyone could by unlimited free first-class air travel for the rest of their lives. For an additional $150K they could buy a companion pass that would allow them to bring anyone they wanted along for the ride. In 1994, American stopped offering the unlimited AAirpass, but in the thirteen years it was available, twenty-eight people signed up for it, notable among them Michael Dell of Dell computers, Baseball Hall of Famer Willie Mays, and Mark Cuban, the Dallas Mavericks owner of Shark Tank fame.
The unlimited AAirpass was one of the most foolish ways an airline ever raised money, and by the early 2000’s, the airline was losing millions each year because of it. But there were certain super-travelers who were using their passes to audacious excess.
In the early 80’s, Steve Rothstein was an investment banker living in Chicago, who was one of AA’s top fliers. When the airline contacted him suggesting that he might like to purchase the unlimited AAirpass, he did so without hesitation, even buying the companion pass with it. He bargained the price for the package down to $383,000, and even worked into the contract the right to allow his companion to fly on a flight just before or after his (in case there weren’t enough first-class seats available on the flight he was taking).
Over the next twenty-plus years, Steve took over 10,000 flights totaling over 10 million miles flown, including 1,000 flights to New York, 500 each to London, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, 120 to Tokyo, 80 each to Paris and Sydney, and 50 to Hong Kong. Steve would fly to Ontario to get a sandwich for lunch (who knew Ontarians were such masters of the sandwich!), or fly to London to catch dinner and a show. He would fly around the world to watch sporting events with his son, or fly to Switzerland for the weekend to see his daughter while she was in college there. He would often give away his companion tickets to random strangers he met in the airport, and frequently used it to help people such as a mother desperate to get home because her babysitter quit on her, or helping family members reunite from across the globe. Overall, his travels were worth over $21 million dollars! “The contract was truly unlimited,” he claimed, “why not use it as it was intended?”
In Texas, a direct marketing catalog salesman named Jacques Vroom was offered the unlimited AAirpass, but in his entire life he had never bought anything that expensive. He borrowed the full $400,00 to buy the pass and the companion ticket, and then proceeded to fly over 2 million miles a year for over two decades! He would go to France or London to have lunch with friends, when his daughter had a class project about South American culture, he flew her to Buenos Aires to see a Brazilian rodeo. When describing his flying experience, he recounted, “There was one flight attendant, Pierre, who knew exactly what I wanted. He’d bring me three salmon appetizers, no dessert and a glass of champagne right after takeoff. I didn’t even have to ask.” He even made money on the deal, at times selling his companion tickets to strangers for hefty sums of cash.
In 2007, American Airlines found itself in dire straits again, and this time, their “revenue integrity team” found Vroom and Rothstein to be each costing the company at least a million dollars a year, and American had enough. In 2008, as Rothstein was about to board a flight in Chicago with a policeman he was helping return to Bosnia, he was detained, and was told that his unlimited AAirpass was being revoked for fraudulent behavior. An investigation showed that in the prior four years, he had booked 3,009 flights, but cancelled 2,523 of those reservations. He often didn’t know to whom he would give the companion ticket, so he would book them under fictitious names like Bag Rothstein. Vroom too had been cornered in London Heathrow a few months prior, and was given the same notice. Both of them sued in court, but could never win against American’s massive legal team. When AA went bankrupt in 2011, their cause was lost forever. Interestingly, besides one other superuser who had his AAirpass revoked, the other twenty-five passes are still out there, and still being honored to this day.
There are two different lessons I see in this story. The first is how this story supports an often quoted Talmudic phrase (e.g. Yoma 80a), loosely translated as “If you grab a lot, you grab nothing, if you grab a little, you hold it.” Sometimes in life we are given an opportunity. If we use it properly, it can be of great benefit to us, if we try to use it too much, we’re going to lose it.
This is a rule that plays out in all areas of life; marriage, parenting, business, friendships. It’s OK to try to get what you need, sometimes even what you want, and in some scenarios, you can press forward and get it. But when you keep pressing for more and more and more, that’s when things fall apart. You press your kids too hard to excel, you push your spouse to compromise even more, you go for every last nickel in a business deal, you demand three salmon appetizers and a champagne, and suddenly everything falls apart. It’s those that can leave the proverbial last dollar on the table that end up with the prize.
The other lesson can be learned from American Airlines. Granted they were desperate for cash, but they offered a deal that would only continue to haunt them more and more as each year went by, eventually costing them tens of millions of dollars. There are decisions in life we can make that will give us a short infusion of what we are looking for, but then over time continually damage us more and more. Any time we allow ourselves to let go of a healthy, holy, or productive habit and fall into a bit of chaos, it may be exciting and enjoyable in the beginning, but it soon starts getting morally heavy and eventually drags us down, costing us a fortune in guilt, emotional health, and life stability.
On the flip side, there are decisions we make that may take a bit of effort in the beginning, and engender some challenge when first attempting, but in the end, those decisions only continue to affirm themselves as the right choice, and only add more and more value to our lives as we move forward. New positive habits we start, new mitzvahs we take on, definitely don’t start easy, but eventually become the sources of so much joy and self-worth.
An example of this I would like to point out is something done by one of my heroes, Geri Zacks. Ten years ago, at the end of one of my classes, I mentioned that Partners Detroit is here for any group that would like to learn any Jewish topic, and that all who were interested should please talk to me after the class. One woman in her fifties came over to me and said that she would like to start a class in her house once a month or so for her friends and neighbors.
The class started as a once-a-month get together. Geri was always an amazing host, setting out a beautiful and delicious breakfast at 9:30 so that people could come, eat, and socialize before the Torah class started at 10. Once a month turned into twice a month, twice a month turned into weekly classes, and the group kept growing and growing.
Now, for the past seven years at least, there has been a weekly class in her house. The group she started had an amazing trip with Partners Detroit to Israel, dubbed “Holy Women in the Holy Land,” as well as a trip to visit the Jewish community in New York. Every year she builds a succah on her deck and all the women come to shake lulav and esrog and eat a meal there. The women have all grown so much, closer to each other and closer to their Jewish roots and it is all because of one woman (and her husband!) who were willing to take on that challenge of starting a class, making the breakfast, and having the peace of their house disturbed by twenty people trekking in and out for a couple of hours. It is an accomplishment she and her husband take such pride in, as they should, and it is simply the result of someone standing up and making a difference.
I don’t know about Steve Rothstein or Jacques Vroom, but I do know that Howard and Geri Zacks sure did find themselves an Unlimited Airpass, an ability to fly and keep flying, and luckily they are taking so many companions with them on their First Class journey!
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this weeks parsha, Shmini, we read about the inauguration of the Tabernacle, and the first service ever performed by the Kohanim, the priests. For the seven days leading up to the inauguration, Moshe performed the service as a “dry run,” and in this parsha we read about the climactic moment when Aaron the High Priest is about to begin the service.
“And Moses said to Aaron, ‘Approach the altar and perform your sin offering and your burnt offering, atoning for yourself and for the people, and perform the people’s sacrifice, atoning for them, as the Lord has commanded.’” (Lev. 9:7)
One might wonder why was it necessary for Moshe to instruct his brother to approach the altar, wouldn’t that be a natural part of the performing the offerings? Rashi explains, “Moses had to order Aaron to do so, because Aaron was bashful and afraid to approach the altar. So Moses said to him: ’Why are you ashamed? For this you have been chosen!’” (Ibid.)
Moshe was telling Aaron that this was his role in life, his calling, and he shouldn’t be bashful, but should come forward and accept it.
The Arizal (1534-1572), the father of the Kabalistic renaissance, has another explanation, which teaches a beautiful lesson. He explains that Moshe was telling Aaron that he was chosen because he was bashful and ashamed to approach the holy Altar and perform the service. Had he been the kind of person who would approach the altar with a more cavalier attitude then he would not be the one for the job. But precisely because he had bashfulness and humility, and he didn’t feel worthy of the job, he was chosen for this mission.
Today, this idea still rings true. Some of the greatest leaders of the Jewish people, both in Israel and abroad, are people who practically had to be dragged out of the study halls and classrooms and brought to their positions of leaderships. They saw themselves as simple teachers, and did not feel like they should be leaders in any way. But, as Moshe said, “For this you have been chosen!”
This week’s parsha begins with a description of the offerings and ceremony involved in inaugurating the Tabernacle. For the seven days leading up to the inauguration, which was done on the first day of Nissan (the first month in the year), Moshe did all the temple services dressed in a simple white tunic. Throughout this period no heavenly fire came down to burn the offerings as this was not yet the real service. Finally, on the eight day, Moshe gives Aaron the green light and tells him in front of the whole nation to bring special inauguration sacrifices.
Aaron brought the various sacrifices and the people stood expectantly, hoping to see some sign that G-d was happy with the dwelling they built for Him, and was going to manifest Himself there. Nothing happened. Then Moses and Aaron went into the Tabernacle (until now they had been in the Courtyard), and prayed, asking that it be G-d’s will the He bring His Presence into the Tabernacle. At that moment, a fire came down from heaven and consumed the offerings on the Altar, indicating that G-d had come down and assumed a dwelling place in the Tabernacle.
The Jewish people greatly rejoiced at this wondrous sight. Caught up in the joy of the moment, two of Aaron’s sons went into the Tabernacle bearing an incense offering. A fire came out of heaven, entered their nostrils, and burnt them to death. There are many explanations as to for why this happened. Commentators state that the brothers into the Tabernacle to do service under the influence of alcohol, and/or that they brought a sacrifice that was not commanded of them.
The idea behind both of these explanations is that we do not tread lightly around G-d or His dwelling place. A relationship with G-d does not flourish by our doing what we feel like doing, but rather by following the laws He sets up for us, and in the manner He prescribes. Aaron, after seeing his two sons die in the midst of this great celebration,
does not complain, does not say anything, but accepts G-d’s judgment in silence. He is rewarded for this by G-d giving him a special prophecy. G-d tells Aaron that a Kohen is never allowed to serve in the Temple after drinking wine. G-d wants us to get joy from our service of Him, without needing or having any external stimuli.
After that, the parsha continues with a discussion of how the food remains of the sacrifices of the day were to be eaten. One of the salient points here is a disagreement between Moshe and Aaron regarding eating certain sacrificial parts. At the beginning of the disagreement the Torah tells us that Moshe got angry at Aaron and his sons, and chastised them for not eating some of those parts. Aaron explains why he didn’t eat them, and Moshe agrees with him. We can learn two things from this exchange. Firstly, we see how quick Moshe was to back down; he didn’t allow his pride to get in the way. Moshe was in it for the truth, and had no personal stake in what happens. The Sages also teach us that we see from here that when someone gets angry, they forget their learning and make mistakes.
The last part of the parsha deals with the laws of kosher, the spiritual diet of the Jewish people. Some of the many benefits of kosher are that it always reminds us of who we are. (I have had the opportunity to travel to dozens of locations around the world, but I always remember that I’m a Jew because I can’t eat what everyone around me is eating, I have a special diet.) Here is a basic rundown. Mammals have to have split hooves and belong to the ruminant family (animals with multiple stomachs that send back their food from their stomach to the mouth for further chewing, also called “chewing their cud”). This includes cows, sheep, goats, bison, deer, and a few others.
Fish have to have fins and scales. Birds are different, in that the Torah forbids 20 families of birds, and allows all other families. Since we have lost most of our tradition of exactly what those families are, we only eat birds for which we do have a tradition regarding their kashrut status. We are then prohibited from eating most insects with the exception of some grasshoppers.
The parsha concludes with G-d telling us not to contaminate ourselves with all the non-kosher creepy crawlies and foods, because G-d is holy and those foods are spiritually contaminated. One way to view eating non-kosher foods is that it builds up spiritual plaque in the arteries that pump the lifeblood of our relationship with G-d. Besides what in the world could possibly be better than a good cholent?!?
This week, we will also read Parshas Parah, the portion in Leviticus that deals with the laws of the Red Heifer, the Parah Adumah. The red heifer was brought as a sacrifice and its ashes were mixed with water and a few other ingredients to create a liquid that could be sprinkled on people to remove spiritual impurity from them.
We read it at this time of the year, because it was at this time of the year that they would bring the red heifer sacrifice and because we are in middle of a cleansing time of the year, cleaning our houses for Pesach. The physical cleansing we do on our houses is supposed to remind us of the spiritual cleansing that we should be doing concurrently. Reading about the spiritual cleansing powers of the red heifer waters reminds us of that all-important job! That’s all Folks!!!
Quote of the Week: The test of courage comes when we are in the minority. ~ Ralph Sockman
Random Fact of the Week: 1,013 buildings in the US have a sign that reads “George Washington slept here.”
Funny Line of the Week: Most people work just hard enough not to get fired and get paid just enough money not to quit.
Have a Charming Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham