I have 24,673 Medallion Qualification Miles on Delta. They’re called MQM’s. It’s not a lot. Not nearly as many as I had last year, to which I attribute my Gold Medallion status on Delta this year. I only need 327 more qualifying miles to make silver status for next year. I have literally called Delta Airlines twice this week to ask how I might procure a few hundred more MQM’s, qualifying miles that count toward status upgrades? The last time I called, the woman on the other end of the phone in God-knows-where literally told me, “you could fly somewhere in the next three days, even if it’s just one way, you know, to get the points.” “But I don’t have anywhere I need to go in the next three days,” I responded. “That depends on if you want the status upgrade,” she quipped back. Clearly, I was not the first person to make this inquiry. I thanked her anyway, implying I thought her suggestion was ridiculous. When I hung up the phone, I realized I had another question. So I promptly emailed Delta.com.
Two years ago, when I went to Senegal with American Jewish World Service, to engage in learning about poverty and economic sustainability in the Jewish tradition, and to volunteer in a small, rural African village, we flew Air France to get there. I was thrilled. Air France is a partner airline with Delta. I was going to get a lot of miles. At the end of the 10 day experience, where we discussed best practices for sustainable development, and had lots of time to reflect on our own privilege and great responsibility as American Jewish leaders, we arrived at the small airport at Dakar. I’m not going to lie: I was glad to see the inside of an airport after 10 days in rural Africa. I greeted the AirFrance ticket agent, and casually asked for directions to the Delta Lounge. And that’s when the group of 18 young rabbis split up, half to the Lounge and half to the sitting area by the gate. Those of us with Delta Lounge passes snuck in our scholar-in-residence with us, a middle-aged rabbi from New York who heads up a modern Orthodox yeshiva on the upper west side. This was no American or even European airport lounge. It was down-right luxurious. The rabbi in residence stretched out on a plush blue valour couch and promptly fell asleep. And there I sat, in a red leather arm chair, sipping a martini, after 10 days without plumbing. Something about the stark contrast between the poverty we had just been living in and the ueber-luxury of this airport lounge irked me profoundly. …So I took another sip of my martini. For a moment, I wondered if I had learned the wrong lesson from the whole experience. Because, “Thank God I don’t live THERE!” I suspected, was not entirely the message American Jewish World Service hoped to convey by sending a group of young rabbis to western Africa. And so I have continued to struggle, like Jacob with his angel, with the cognitive dissonance I experienced in that moment. I still am.
Moses spoke before Adonai, saying “Behold, the Children of Israel have not listened to me, so how will Pharaoh listen to me? Va’ani aral s’fatayim, And I have blocked lips!”
When Moses first approaches the Israelites with the news that God has remembered them and their covenant, and has sent Moses to deliver them from slavery, the Torah reads: “they would not listen to Moses, miktzer ruach u’meyavodah kasha, ‘their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.'” The Israelites’ ears and hearts were blocked to any message of hope, because of the weight of their slave labor. As the 19th Century Hasidic master, the Sfat Emet teaches, a prophet prophesies by the power of those who listen. Moses’ lips are blocked not mostly because of his words themselves, but because of how his audience receives them. The Israelites fail to hear or heed them. Hearing requires being able to empty oneself enough to hear a new perspective. When one is overwhelmed by one’s own experience, like the Israelites under the oppression of Egypt, there is simply no room, no opening to hear. For the same reason, God had to empty the Israelites of the experience of slavery and redeem them from Egypt, before the Israelites could even think of heeding and hearing God’s words at Sinai.
According to the Sfat Emet again, “When it says of the Israelites in Egypt, that they did not listen to Moses, the Midrash says that it was hard for them to abandon their ‘foreign worship.’ This does not necessarily refer to idols, but to worship that was foreign to them.” Rabbi Art Green explains that this is the essence of exile today as well. Anything that keeps us from hearing the divine voice, our over involvement in the vanity that occupies most of our attention in this world and keeps us from being empty enough to receive the word of God—all that is our idolatry.
In our society, privilege can be as blinding of an agent for us today as oppression was for our ancestors in Egypt.
Yesterday, I met with a staffer in Senator Reid’s Reno office. I reminded her that more than 1 out of 7 Nevadans are food insecure. With food stamps and safety net programs on a Federal Level set to expire next month, that figure is bound to rise even more steadily in the coming year. One out of seven people in our state do not have enough food to eat, and yet our culture tells us not to be concerned with them, but instead to worry about our status level with our favorite airline, or any number of material goods we “need” and yet do not own! But what do we really need? The way we have come to use the word, “I need,” has changed markedly in my lifetime. Peter Singer, a moral philosopher at Princeton, argues in “Rich and Poor,” one of his best-known essays, that some people living in abundance while others starve is morally indefensible. Singer proposes that anyone able to help the poor should donate part of their income to aid poverty relief and similar efforts. Singer reasons that, when one is already living comfortably, a further purchase to increase comfort will lack the same moral importance as saving another person’s life. He writes:
If we can prevent something bad without sacrificing anything of comparable significance, we ought to do it; absolute poverty is bad; there is some poverty we can prevent without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance; therefore we ought to prevent some absolute poverty.
In other words, no one should indulge in spending money on anything that gives them comfort beyond basic needs of survival: food, water, shelter, medicine, etc. Instead, your money should go to the people whose basic needs are Not met. While Singer’s writing can read as extreme, how can anyone really disagree with him?
The 10 days I spent in Senegal, despite the martini at the airport, profoundly changed my perspective on global inequality. Sometimes one needs to leave the structures and day-to-day of one’s own experience in order to see a different truth, to empty oneself sufficiently as to hear the voice of God, as the Sfat Emet teaches. Our prophetic tradition, the Biblical experience of slavery and redemption, and the historical memory of our people’s oppression, give us the wisdom and sometimes the capacity to step outside of ourselves long enough, to wake up to the urgency of human suffering and inequality among us.
I am proud of NOT spending $475 to purchase points that don’t really exist to Delta Airlines for the occasional chance of being upgraded to first class when I fly. Even though I am happy Delta is now underwriting NPR, on our local KUNR radio station, it is antithetical to my values to spend money on status-climbing Delta points when 1 out of 6 people continue to starve in the world, and 16% of Nevadans are not sure when or whether their next meal will come. We are becoming slaves to the illusions of false happiness and the seductions of comfort and status when we choose to spend on Delta points and Not on relieving the hungry and combatting the systems that create poverty and hunger in our midst and around the world. I bless you each and the whole Temple Sinai family for a happy and healthy secular new year full with the people, community and good deeds that are the real sources of happiness. Shabbat shalom.