To err is human; to really foul things up, it takes a computer! Thanks to computer technology, what yesteryear was a very localized error today can become a global event. In the vernacular, it goes viral.
Such was the case a few weeks ago, when a major error in the El Al computer system had the airline offering trips to Israel at prices that were obviously too good to be true.
Just to give you an idea, based on these prices as they were offered on the Internet, people were able to book a round trip to Israel for two that amounted to less than the price for a single ticket, with money to spare.
It was a colossal mistake emanating from El Al. El Al, to its credit, announced that it would honour the tickets at the advertised (in error) prices. This means that according to the strict letter of the law, those people who lucked in grabbed a great bargain.
Now comes the ethical dilemma. This is not a questioning of those who snatched up the tickets. The tickets were available, and they took full advantage, as they were entitled. But we now know that it was a mistake. Is there an obligation to return the tickets? Are those with these tickets obliged to call El Al and say the following: “We realize this was a mistake, and are hereby returning the tickets, either for a full refund or for a credit toward a future purchase of tickets?
One can make a potent argument for the position that there is no such legal obligation. My question to all those who have such tickets is: granted that you are within your rights, are you also right to hold on to these tickets? Or, knowing as you do that it was a mistake, should you go the extra kilometre and return the tickets?
That is a different and more challenging question. To my mind, the answer is clear, and for a number of reasons. This is a classic instance of adhering to the letter of the law being a potential detriment. It evokes the famous observation of the sages that Jerusalem was destroyed because the people kept scrupulously to the law (Talmud, Baba Mezia 30b). Judaism demands of us more that just being legal. We are asked to go beyond the letter of the law, or more accurately, inside (lifnim) the line of the law (based on Exodus 18:20 and further elaborated on in Talmud, Baba Kamma, 99b-100a).
To be above reproach, to refuse to put others in difficult circumstances, to do that which is noble and upright, are all Judaic responsibilities, and more truly expressive of the Halachah in its highest sense.
Of all the wonderful ethical imperatives that are transmitted in the Torah, the most pervasive, and as well best known, is the famous directive: “Love your fellow as you love yourself” (Leviticus, 19:18). Such a lovely expression, until it hits the pocketbook. The more literal translation of these famous words is: love that which accrues to your fellow as if it were your own. This refers to the selfhood of others, their dignity, their esteem and, yes, their property.
Here comes the crucial test. Would we be happy if we were on the other side of the equation – not the ones taking advantage of the mistake, and instead the ones being disadvantaged by the mistake? Surely we would not be happy. The moment we realize this is the moment that the ethical obligation kicks in. Since we would not want to be so financially pounced upon, we can therefore have no part of being the pouncers. In other words, the higher ethical responsibilities as enunciated in Jewish thought, obligate us all to return the tickets. Instead of going to the Holy Land, we are urged to live in a holy space; to give up airplane tickets in favour of tickets to plainly profound righteousness.
Based on a most effective ad that appears on television quite regularly, here is the final take.
Obtaining airline tickets for next to nothing: estimated value – a few hundred to possibly as much as a few thousand dollars.
Returning the tickets for a refund and thereby teaching our children and grandchildren, indeed our entire community, the meaning of integrity, compassion, sensitivity and unassailable ethics: estimated value – absolutely priceless, and enduring forever.
Rabbi Reuven P. Bulka is the spiritual leader of Congregation Machzikei Hadas in Ottawa.