by Rabbi Emanuel Feldman
Suddenly my flight was upgraded, and I began to view the world differently.
I was recently bumped up to first class on an overseas flight to Israel. El
Al had oversold the coach section, and I was one of the fortunate few to be
given complimentary seats upstairs. I am not certain that it is worth the
extra thousand dollars normally charged for this pleasure, but I must admit
I loved it. The ambience was luxurious, the service gracious, the seat wide
and comfortable. But something strange happened to me when I entered that
I confess that before very long I sensed within me the beginnings of an
attitude towards those unfortunates in coach that was quite unbecoming: a
of pride, hauteur, and what can only be described as something akin to
condescension towards those huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
It was at first a deliciously wicked feeling, but soon enough I was troubled
by it. Parvenu that you are, I scolded myself. Shameless arriviste. One
flight of stairs on a plane have you climbed, and look to what level you
have sunk. By what alchemy have you suddenly been transmogrified into an
and they into riffraff? Had it not been for the sheer accident of your being
at the right point in the line, you too would be down there rubbing
with screaming children, irritated parents, and harassed flight attendants.
Countless times have you preached about the sin of forgetting our origins,
and how the Torah constantly reminds us to remember where we came from. But
in the time it takes to climb nine short steps you have forgotten your
But as quickly as the twinges of guilt settled upon me, just as quickly did
they dissipate. Pampered by the luxury, I let myself melt into the
ambience of eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we arrive in Israel.
It’s All Relative
Now and then I wondered about the great unwashed who were sitting
downstairs. Was it noisy there, were the tourists already standing and
in the aisles, had the attendants by now become impatient, had the
saran-wrapped meals and the plastic cutlery been served, were the aisles
and the rest rooms all occupied?
Thus enclosed in a cocoon of self-satisfaction, I dozed off in my soft
leather chair. It had enough leg room and tilted back deeply enough for me
into the semi-somnolent airline state that resembles actual sleep.
And then I dreamed a dream. In the dream an old question was posed to me: If
a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound? Without hesitation, I
firmly: Yes. A sound is a sound independent of its listeners. The existence
of a sound is not dependent on who hears it.
A second question was posed to me: If you are in the first class compartment
of a plane, and there are no passengers at all in the coach section, are you
still in first class?
Now this was a more complex question. If there is no second class, there can
be no first class. First class-ness itself depends on second class-ness. So
if no one at all is in the coach section, by what definition is my section
And yet, the same level of luxury obtains in first class whether or not
there are people sitting in coach. Like the tree that falls in the forest,
class-ness is its own entity: it is a state unto itself, independent of any
thing else, unrelated to other sections.
Or is it? One of the items the airlines sell with their first class tickets
is the unsavory little pleasure of knowing that there are passengers on the
same plane who are not in first class — who are sitting in a separate,
curtained-off compartment behind you or beneath you in a place
called “coach,” in a section more crowded that yours, in seats narrower than
yours, receiving service less frequent than you, attended by stewardesses
more harried than yours, eating on table trays not covered by linen
tablecloths like yours, and — if you don’t observe kashrut — eating food
much less varied than yours.
But if the coach section is empty, that means that all the passengers are in
first class. If everyone is in first class, that means that the first class
passenger is being deprived of his unsavory first class pleasure. First
implies a second. (See Rashi to Genesis 1:5) After all, as the incisive old
puts it, it is not what we have that gives us pleasure; it the knowledge
that our neighbor lacks what we have that gives us true pleasure.
The High Road
So bemused, I spent the next few hours in semi-sleep. Soon enough the
questions dissolved in the steady hum of the engines, the quiet in the
the whispering attendants, the dim lights, the thick blankets, the oversized
pillows. Coach class, first class — why all this Talmudic hair-splitting?
I was, for a change, having a comfortable trip to Israel, period.
The sun came up, and with it, breakfast. Entree, juice, eggs, warm bagels,
lox, cream cheese, cereal, coffee, Danish, chocolate, milk — an endless
of goodies. I stretched, yawned, washed, davened, and sat down to enjoy the
But the night-time question hung in the air. In the dawn’s early light it
occurred to me that a truly pious Jew would not have had a difficult time
it. Says the Talmud, “Do not look down at anyone.” And Nachmanides in his
famous letter warns about humility and the evils of haughtiness and pride:
“… Humility is the finest quality among all the fine qualities Know, my
son, that he whose heart is arrogant toward other beings is in fact a rebel
God’s kingdom, for he is utilizing God’s garments to glorify himself — for
it is written (Psalms 93:1): “God reigns, he is robed in pride….”
Nachmanides goes on to demonstrate that in whatever man would be proud — be
it his wealth, his glory, his wisdom — he is foolish and sinful, for all
things are God’s alone.
Beyond this, the Torah itself (Deut. 17:20) warns a king not to multiply
chariots or sessions “so that his heart not be lifted up among his
king — who has authority and majesty — is warned against the pride which
is his due; how much more so ordinary people.
Only two more luxurious hours remained before landing, and I would not allow
vexing reveries to disturb my tranquility. Not for me these trivial
in pettiness. Thus purified and cleansed, I awaited our arrival in the Holy
And yet…. what if no one was in fact down there in coach?
I was only curious. It had nothing to do with my being upstairs; I was
simply wondering. Could there be such a thing as a coach compartment without
passengers at all? An entirely empty coach cabin: that would be something to
see. Just theoretically, of course.
Danish and Coffee
I don’t recall exactly what happened next — was I dreaming again or not? —
but I found myself arising from my chair, walking to the cabin exit, and
the circular stairwell. Nine steps. Once on the lower level I turned towards
the back of the plane, parted the curtain and peered inside. Before me were
unruly children, impatient flight attendants, a long line before the
restrooms, papers and refuse on the floor, mothers diapering babies, 200
pressed closely together.
I slid back the curtain, climbed back up the stairwell, entered the first
class compartment, and sank into my seat. The compartment was tranquil, and
attendant plied me with more Danish and asked me how I would like my coffee.
But my mind was elsewhere. Dream or not, I knew that Nachmanides would never
have experienced the tiny surge of reassurance that coursed through me as I
beheld the multitude overflowing the coach sections.
It was then that I became aware of four unvarnished facts of life:
1. For ordinary people who have not attained Nachmanides’ heights, first
class does require a second class.
2. The “lifted heart” warning of the Torah is directed not only to a king
who is tempted daily by pride, but is directed at every human being; for
— even a seat that is three inches wider with leg room four inches
longer — can generate an attitude of “lifted heart.”
3. The frail human heart not only needs someone to look up to, but also
someone to look down at.
4. It is much easier for a religious Jew to be in first class than to be a
first class religious Jew.
The Shul Without a Clock
This article can also be read at:
Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, a resident of Jerusalem, was rabbi of Atlanta’s
Congregation Beth Jacob for almost 40 years. Ordained by Baltimore’s Ner
he also holds the Ph.d from Emory University. He has just retired as editor
in chief of Tradition Magazine, and is the author of seven books, including
the best-selling “Tales Out of Shul,” and “On Judaism, ” and, most recently,
“The Shul Without a Clock.” He serves as editor in chief of the Ariel
project, which translates Rashi and other commentaries on the Bible into
English. Rabbi Feldman’s newest book is “Biblical Questions, Spiritual
Inner Explorations for our Times”.
by Rabbi Emanuel Feldman