The Curious Case of Steven Slater

After a three hour delay for what our pilot blithely referred to as a "catastrophic failure" of one of our brakes (how fortuitous to learn this before takeoff and not after!), my wife and I are finally on our way to California for a well-earned vacation. Watching flight attendants deal with frustrated passengers at 34,000 feet seems like a good time to spend a few minutes thinking about America’s new cult hero, Steven Slater.

Said flight attendant responded to a rude passenger on his Jet Blue flight last week by cursing out the passengers over the loudspeaker system, grabbing a few beers, launching the emergency chute, and sliding his way to freedom (and, ultimately, Queens…why did it have to be Queens?).

Given that a song titled "Take This Job and Shove It" was a huge hit just a few years ago, I guess that in an America where many people feel like they’re increasingly being asked to do more work for less money, it shouldn’t be surprising that this man has captured the popular imagination. After all, most of us have, at one time or another, harbored a fantasy of telling people that we work for exactly what we think of them (and vice versa, I would imagine).

If Jimmy Carter could admit to lusting after women in his heart, the less "saintly" among us would be hard pressed to deny that we’ve had moments – or longer- of wanting to launch our own escape chutes from difficult jobs and letting the chips fall where they may.

But here’s the thing. Of course we feel like Steven Slater did from time to time. But we don’t do what he did. And that makes all the difference.

There is a wonderful rabbinic teaching that says lo hamahshava ha’ikkar elah ha’ma’a’seh... The thought is not the essence of the thing; the deed is.

The ancient rabbis long ago understood that trying to legislate how a person feels or what he thinks is a fruitless enterprise, and they were spot on correct. There is no sin involved in a sinful thought. The reality of sin only becomes a factor when one acts on those thoughts.

Whether one frames those impulses as the Freudian id or the rabbinic yetzer harah, they are part and parcel of the human condition. The healthy person has built-in checks and balances to counter those impulses. Steven Slater’s weren’t working too well thqt day. His five minutes of unfiltered, crude, and ill advised honesty may have gained him a few hundred thousand friends on Facebook, but they likely cost him his job, and more.

It takes a lot to be able to reign in the desire to tell people what’s on your mind, and believe me, rabbis know that as well as anyone. But it’s almost always a good idea to count to at least 100 before opening your mouth in anger. Elul is a good time to be mindful of that.

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.