If necessity is truly the mother of invention, we should have invented teleportation devices long ago.
The current air travel system desperately needs revamping, as it is far from great and only getting worse. More people are flying each year, with last year seeing 848,000,000 people boarding planes departing or arriving within the US. There are fewer airlines and options due to the frequent mergers in the airline industry (over the last twelve years, twelve large national carriers merged their way down to four mega carriers). Seats are getting more cramped with the most generous economy seats of today smaller than the most stingy economy seats in the ‘90s. Most flights today are full or close to it, so more people are being crammed into smaller seats, with less overhead bin space, and longer headaches at the boarding gate.
The airline industry couldn’t be more pleased. Your deep discomfort throughout the flying process increases the likelihood that you’ll buy some of the extra add-ons, many of which used to be free, and now are the airlines fastest growing profit source. Airlines, which for many years stagnated financially, are now making money hand over fist. In the third quarter of 2015, airlines made a profit of $9.3 billion, triple the amount they made in the third quarter of 2014. And the third quarter is one of the slowest quarters, holding no major holidays!
Some of that is attributable to falling gas prices. From 2011-2014, crude oil bounced between $100 and $120 a barrel, but in 2015 the prices cratered down to their current levels of about $37 a barrel. You would think airfares would come down as well, but they haven’t. Some airlines still charge the fuel surcharges they added to each ticket in 2008 when oil hit a peak of $140 a barrel!
But the bigger source of profit for airlines is the add-ons they now charge us for. Things like a comfortable seat are now upcharges marked under names like Economy Comfort +, Main Cabin Extra, or Economy Plus. Checking luggage used to be included in the price of a ticket, but that changes as oil prices spiked, and now free checked baggage for regular travelers is a thing of the past (except with Southwest, G-d bless their souls!). A traveler flying domestically with two bags can expect to spend a minimum of $100 in baggage fees on a round trip.
Some airlines charge for the simple privilege of reserving a seat prior to showing up on the airport (something neccessary for anyone flying as a family with children). Food that used to be free now costs money. Boarding ahead of the herd (or is it horde?) now costs money. There are many ways to board a plane that are far more efficient, but the current zoning system allows them to charge more for Priority Boarding or Zone 1 Boarding. (See more here and here )Every little bit of comfort and quiet that you might want has a dollar amount attached to it.
Those dollars add up; in 2013, the airline industry made $31.5 billion in fees and ancillary services! So you can be pretty confident that the airlines are happy when you are uncomfortable during your flying experience, it’s designed that way so that you feel compelled to buy their upcharges with quiet resignation.
This became very clear during a recent announcement by JetBlue. For years, JetBlue had been the holdout, offering more legroom and other amenities to their customers for free. But Wall Street did not like it, and vocally accused JetBlue of being, “overly brand conscious and customer-focused.” This may not sound like bad things to you, but on Wall Street that means that you are not squeezing every dollar you can out of your customers and your denying your shareholders the profits they deserve. Not long after, JetBlue, which is under new management, announced that they too will begin shoehorning more seats into their planes, and upcharging for people who want to sit in their premium economy seats, which until now have just been economy seats. Ironically, despite all the slogans and carefully crafted marketing materials, the airlines are not hoping that you’ll be comfortable, they’re actually hoping you’ll be just uncomfortable enough to buy your way to the next class level.
Last week, I had the pleasure of flying domestically during one of the busiest seasons for US air travel. I was able to see the one thousand foot long line for dropping off economy baggage in the Delta terminal right next to the four person long line for Delta Sky Priority customers. I was able to spend almost as much time boarding the flight as I would spend on the flight itself. As we shuffled slowly down the jetway like a herd of anesthetized buffaloes, Delta was kind enough to fill the walls with advertisements showing the First Class seats/beds, curated chef meals, and other amenities we wouldn’t have. On the five hour flight from LAX-DTW there used to be a free meal service, now the flight attendants walk around offering meals for $8-10. The fighting for overhead bin space was almost savage. If Delta’s goal is for me to be slightly uncomfortable, they’re doing an admirable job!
I may not be pleased with what Delta is doing to me (or it’s millions of other economy customers), but I have to be honest, they are doing what the capital markets are designed to do. They’re efficiently extracting as much capital as possible using every possible technique. I would be a lot more pleased as a shareholder, as they’re stock which was below $7 a share in August of 2011 is now more than seven times that amount, at $51 a share! There are upsides to discomfort…
A few days ago I was talking with a friend of mine about the Mussar movement, an important part of Jewish learning that focuses on rigorous ethical self-development. Mussar should be an integral part of any growing Jew’s life, and every Yeshiva has a daily mussar study session for 15-30 minutes. During this time, people study books that call upon them to be more honest, more self-reflective, more selfless, and more demanding of themselves. I joked that the motto of the Mussar movement should be, “We’re not happy until you’re not happy!”
That of course is not true, the Torah exhorts us multiple times to serve G-d with joy, even going so far as to say that serving G-d with soulless automation is part of the reason we are in exile. So the Mussar movement doesn’t want us not to be happy, it wants us to be uncomfortable. It wants us to constantly be aware that life offers more and that we should never settle where we are. We should always seek to upgrade to the next ethical class. We’re all born in Ethical Basic Economy section, but the goal of life is to slowly upgrade to Main Cabin, then to Comfort+, to Business Class and finally to First Class. Sitting back in Basic Economy and saying “This is good enough, I’m kind of happy where I am!” means that we are not getting the most out of our limited time on this planet. No one ever achieved greatness by being comfortable.
The truth is that people don’t experience much happiness when they’re comfortable. My wife and I would surely be more comfortable with no children, but not nearly as happy. Rabbi Moshe Shapiro, one of the greatest Mussar leaders of today’s generation, explains that simcha, true happiness, is the emotion we feel when we experience an expansion of ourselves, and expansion of self never comes without some discomfort, some growing pains.
Some of the most common experiences of simcha are when one gets married or has a child, both times when one’s sense of self expands to include others, but also times that our comfortable routines will be radically changed. We also experience simcha any time that we succeed at a difficult task; holding our anger in check, finishing a long course of study, incorporating regular exercise into our daily routine, asking forgiveness from someone we’ve been fighting with for a long time, or dedicating an hour each week to helping people less fortunate than us.
I may not look forward to my next crowded holiday season flight, but Delta sure gave me an important lesson this week: We’re not truly happy until we’re ready to be uncomfortable.
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s portion we witness G-d designating the greatest leader the Jewish people ever had, Moses. Let’s see if there is a lesson we can learn about what kind of person merits leadership roles. The Torah tells us of the events leading up to G-d’s appointment of Moses:
Moses tended the sheep of his father-in-law Jethro, priest of Midian. He led the sheep to the edge of the wilderness and he came to the mountain of G-d, in the area of Choreiv. An angel of G-d appeared to him in the heart of a fire in the midst of a thorn-bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was on fire but the bush was not being consumed. Moses said, “I will turn aside and see [investigate] this great sight. Why doesn’t the bush burn?” When G-d saw that he turned aside to see, El-him called to him from the midst of the thorn-bush, and said, “Moses, Moses.” (Exodus 3:1-4)
The Medrash Tanchuma says that what set Moses apart from everyone else was that when he saw something as irrational as the burning bush, it didn’t merely catch his fancy for a few moments before he moved on, it was something he realized must be investigated. He was inspired by what he saw, and he left the path he was on, to investigate this new reality. He was willing to step out of the heady rush of life, to look into something that could provide him with more meaning. Only after G-d saw that Moses turned off his regular path to investigate the matter, did He call out to him and offer him the leadership role.
Many times people see things that are very powerful, but it does not cause any significant change to their lives. America was rocked by 9/11. Everyone is moved by the situation in Gaza. But for many, the novelty wears off and soon life continues as usual.
The father of a close friends of mine taught me the importance of taking immediate action when something dramatic occurs. His son, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren were in a boating accident in the Kinneret Sea. Despite having life jackets, the frigid waters could have been deadly, and some of them developed hypothermia. It was only through a great amount of Divine Providence that they were located and saved just in the nick of time.
Immediately after finding out about the accident, he saw the episode as a gift from G-d and wanted to do something concrete to show his gratitude. He started by waking up an hour earlier every day to set aside time to study Torah. He committed to facilitate the building of a neighborhood synagogue that was years in the planning but long in the coming. Three years later, the synagogue was built, he was still keeping his Torah study regimen, and his entire life was changed – all because he seized the moment when he saw a message from G-d.
In his commentary on Song of Songs (2:7), Nachmonides (1194-1270) discusses the importance of translating inspiration into some physical action. Inspiration is a fleeting emotion which on its own, has a very short lifespan. Putting inspiration into action gives it staying power. If we hear about a soldier who was just wounded in Israel, we can feel terrible, but how much more meaningful is it if we can say a small prayer for that soldier. When we wake up and walk outside into a glorious morning with the sun shining brightly and the air crisp and refreshing, we can think about what a nice day it is, or we can say thanks to G-d for giving us such a beautiful day. And when we hear on the news about yet one more rocket attack on Sderot, we can commit to studying ten minutes of Torah every day on behalf of our brothers and sisters living through such difficult times.
We all have good eyes, but the true leaders amongst us, are those whose eyes and body are strongly connected.
This week’s parsha, Shmos, is the first one in the Book of Exodus. This book deals with the story of the Jewish people’s enslavement in Egypt and their subsequent miraculous redemption. One of the reasons it is so important is because the Egyptian ordeal is the spiritual root of all the exiles the Jews have endured, and learning about it helps us understand how we can best navigate life in Diaspora.
The parsha starts off by listing the original people who came down to Egypt, and then mentions that Yosef and all his brothers passed away. This is key, as exiles always begin when we experience detachment from the previous generations, and an abandonment of their ways. Soon after the death of the last son of Jacob, a new Pharaoh arose in Egypt. Some say he was a new king and others say that he put out new decrees, but according to both opinions he didn’t bode well for the Jews.
Pharaoh convened his council and decided that the Jews, who were becoming numerous and prosperous, were a threat to his nation, and thus he began subjugating and enslaving them. Not only that, but based on his astrologers’ predictions that a male Jewish savior was soon to be born, he commanded the two Jewish midwives to kill every Jewish male infant. Luckily for me, they didn’t listen, but, au contraire, helped nourish the babies and keep them alive and healthy. For this brave and heroic act, G-d rewarded them by giving their children the Kehuna, the priesthood, and Malchus, the kingship.
Then Pharaoh kicked it up a notch by decreeing that the Egyptians throw every Jewish male into the Nile River.Eventually, as the astrologers’ predictions got more ominous, he decreed that all male children, Egyptians included, be thrown in the water.
When the decrees came out, a leader of the Jews named Amram declared that Jewish couples should separate to spare themselves from the horror of watching their sons thrown into the water. His daughter Miriam pointed out to him that his declaration was worse than Pharaoh’s, because at least Pharaoh was allowing Jewish girls to live, whereas Amram’s declaration was spelling doom for the entire Jewish people! Heeding his daughter’s wise words, Amram remarried his wife Yocheved, and six months later they had a son.
When their son was born, the house filled with light, and they saw that he was born circumcised, so they knew they were dealing with a special baby. They hid him in the house for 3 months, because the Egyptians were expecting the baby to be a full term baby (9 months for those who didn’t know that) and after three months they put him in a little waterproof cradle, in the Nile, with his sister watching from a distance. At that exact time, Basya, the daughter of Pharaoh, was going to the Nile to bathe and she saw the child, drew him out, had pity on him and decided to keep him. She named him Moshe.
Although Moshe grew up as a prince, he would go out and see the hardships of his brethren, and would take part in their labor. One day he saw an Egyptian beating the life out of a Jew and, after ensuring that no one was looking, he killed the Egyptian. This event became known to Pharaoh, and Moshe was forced to flee to Midian.
In Midian, Moshe met his wife, the daughter of Midian’s ex-High Priest who had rejected the Midianite Gods, and he settled down to life as a shepherd. One day, while tending to the sheep, he saw a burning bush. Upon approaching it, G-d called out to him from the bush and told him that He had chosen him to lead the Jews out of Egypt. Moshe protested, saying he wasn’t worthy, but eventually G-d convinced him to go. G-d gave him three miracles to show the Jews as a sign that he was G-d’s messenger, and Moshe headed back to Egypt. In Egypt, he showed the signs to the Jewish elders, who believed it was G-d’s sign of a coming redemption
Moshe appeared before Pharaoh with his brother acting as his interpreter since his speech was hindered by a burning experience he had had as a child. The pair demanded that Pharaoh let the Jews go to serve G-d in the wilderness. Pharaoh claimed to not know of the Jewish G-d and flat-out refused. Not only that, he decided to force the Jews to work harder in order to prevent them from wasting their time with foolish hopes of redemption. The people complained to Moshe that after promising them salvation, he actually made their lives harder. The Parsha closes with G-d assuring Moshe that not only will Pharaoh let the Jews go, he will beg them to leave!
Quote of the Week: When speculation has done its worst, two and two still make four. ~ Samuel Fremont
Random Fact of the Week: Honeybees have a strange type of hair on their eyes!
Funny Line of the Week: “And then at the end of the letter I like to write PS- This is what part of the alphabet would look like if Q and R were eliminated.”
Have a Majestic Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham