Just Because it is Permissible, Doesn't Mean it is Right

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Last month, the United States Supreme Court heard the case of a rabbi who was suing Delta airlines for revoking his Platinum Elite Status after he complained 24 times in 8 months and negotiated his way to $1,925 in travel credit vouchers, 78,500 extra bonus miles, a travel voucher for his son and $491 in cash reimbursements.  The court has yet to render its decision but it was clear that the justices were less than impressed with the complaint.


A good friend of mine who used to own two kosher restaurants found that customers regularly tried to convert their complaints into a free meal or at least a complimentary dessert or drink.  In an attempt to reproach his customers in a humorous fashion he actually printed on the bottom of the restaurant bills, “Thank you for coming.  Was anything ok?”  I am not sure the message got across, but Jay Leno found it funny enough to feature on his “Headlines” segment one evening.


While often dismissed as an unfair stereotype, it seems that in truth, our people have a special affinity for cutting a deal and negotiating a discount.  Indeed, there is an incredibly popular and successful overtly Jewish website dedicated to teaching the art of the deal.  The site provides a straightforward service by linking to sales and coupon codes, but it also gives tips and advice on how to work credit card reward programs and manipulate airline mileage programs.


The website provides a great service and I myself have taken advantage of some of its links and promotions.  However, there is an undertone to the website and its forum that I find distasteful at best and possibly even outright inappropriate.  Last year, due to a computer glitch, El Al Airlines was briefly selling tickets from New York to Israel for under $400.  This website noticed the glitch and promptly promoted it widely.  As you would imagine, word spread quickly and many took advantage of the extraordinary “discount.”  When El Al learned of the problem they announced they would honor the tickets even if it meant swallowing a tremendous loss.


Last week, Delta airlines experienced a similar computer glitch and for two hours was selling roundtrip tickets for as far as New York to Hawaii or Los Angeles for only $25.  Social media lit up and a number of websites promoted the mistake including the popular Jewish deal site.  Like El Al a year ago, Delta decided to swallow the loss and honor the tickets.


I believe El Al and Delta did the right thing in honoring the tickets, but, I am deeply troubled by the question of whether it was right to purchase them knowing it was likely a mistake.  If we saw jewelry in a store that we knew to be worth a thousand dollars mistakenly marked as one hundred dollars, would we quickly pay for it without asking questions and rush to exit the store, or would we inquire as to the accuracy of the price so as not to hurt someone by taking advantage of their mistake?  Was it correct to share the error with others prompting many more to take advantage and causing the airline an even greater loss (which undoubtedly they just passed on to future customers)?


The debate centers around the biblical prohibition of ona’ah, over- or under-charging the market price.  Does ona’ah apply if the seller agrees to the exaggerated price?  Does ona’ah apply only to goods or even to services and is an airline ticket a good or a service?  Does ona’ah apply if there was a third party involved such as a travel agency?  Does ona’ah apply to Jews and non-Jews equally?  The answers to these questions are not clear-cut and arguments can legitimately be advanced on both sides.


While halacha, Jewish law has a technical approach to these questions, I strongly encourage us to think about this issue from a totally different angle.   To me, the question is not whether it is permissible to take advantage of a company’s misfortune and purchase a ticket at a price that wasn’t intended.   The question for us as God-fearing, ethical and moral people is, even if it is technically permissible, is it right to do?


The Torah tells us (Devarim 6:17) “V’asisa hayashar v’hatov b’einei Hashem, Do what is right and good in the eyes of Hashem.”  What does this generic statement mean?  How do I fulfill this command?  The Ramban explains:


“This is a great concept, for it is impossible to mention in the Torah all of the modes of behavior for a person to follow with his neighbors and acquaintances, and all of the details of his business dealings and all the regulations for the betterment of society and of states.  However, after mentioning many of them such as don’t gossip, don’t take revenge…it goes on to say here in a general manner that one should do what is good and right in every situation.”


In other words, the Ramban is telling us that as limitless as the Torah is, it is impossible to imagine and legislate for every single scenario man is destined to confront.  Therefore, in addition to the detailed laws, the Torah charges us to always ask ourselves a simple question: is what I am about to do right and good?  Would God want me to do it?  Would I do it if I could see God standing next to me?


We spend a tremendous amount of time studying, analyzing and focusing on the rules and laws.  We have too often neglected to teach and model the essence of a Torah way of life, which is to engage every decision in our lives by asking, is this what God wants me to do?  Am I bringing Him nachas, joy and pride?  Am I advancing His vision for society?  Does this pass the test of ha’yashar v’hatov, the right and the good?


Taking advantage of others' mistakes and misfortunes such as buying those tickets on El Al and Delta may technically be permissible, but does it measure up to ha’yashar v’hatov, is it right and good?  To be clear, using a coupon code, taking advantage of a sale, collecting airlines miles or opening credit cards are, to me, honest, just and fair.  However, gaming the system, kvetching out an upgrade, working a discount or negotiating a free voucher at times may work or even be legitimate, but are they right and good.


Perhaps most shocking to me is the brazenness and shamelessness with which many show off about how they gamed the system or worked a deal.  As mentioned, according to some it was halachikly legitimate to take advantage of those airline’s mistakes and buy tickets at mislabeled prices.  But even if one relied on that opinion, is the question of the moral appropriateness not compelling enough to at least cause us to be modest and quiet about the purchase, not to mention the potential chillul Hashem?


It is hard for me to see postings on social media or in conversations showing off to friends about how much we took advantage of another’s mistake as being in fulfillment of v’asisa ha’yashar v’hatov, always do what is right and good.  It is difficult to watch people go even farther and actively encourage others to act similarly and take advantage “now, before they realize the mistake.”


While there is nothing wrong with enjoying a bargain or good deal, not all deals are proper to manipulate or take advantage of.  When in doubt, always ask yourself:  What would God want me to do?