Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Possessed by Possessions

My cousin, Baruch HaLevi, is a young Rabbi at a temple in Boston. A few weeks ago he gave a sermon that brought to light the ultimately negative thoughts and feelings surrounding my worldly possessions I fight with from time to time. His words echo many of the sentiments shared by my closest friends and I, and as I have come to realize, by most of our capitalist-industrial society. If it isn't an open issue at the forefront of your thoughts, you may realize you are overtaken with the same feelings at more random times. No matter how it the feelings are dealt, there appears to be truth in that fact that it is, in one way or another, always plaguing our subconscious.

The following is a copy of his sermon; one in which I agree with deeply. I am not certain what I can do to ease the addictive and possessive tendencies I feel regarding my possessions but accepting the fact that I do feel that way is the first step in establishing a solution. If nothing else this is a great read for self-reflection and understanding. The most enjoyable thing about Baruch's messages are that they do not preach, they are just honest, truthful and informative without much in the way of religious propaganda... something I admire greatly. I apologize for the length but I believe it is worthy of a post.

- Mitch G

"Mishpatim: Possessed By Possessions

If you've spent any time around my son you'd know he has one love thus far in his young life. Though he adores his Mimi (mommy), cherishes his Abba (daddy) and relishes his playtime with his sister, truth be told, nothing compares to Blue Bear.

Blue Bear, the love of my son's life, honestly, is a misnomer. There simply is nothing blue about this bear; at least not anymore. Whereas once he had a soft light blue fur, now he's a matted, grayish, shmutzed up mess - no matter how many times you wash him. But when Yudi looks upon his little, germ infested friend he sees no shmutz, only soul. He loves that bear, can't sleep without him because frankly, it is part of him, an extension of his sense of self and identity. Though my son has many possessions, the one thing he
believes he truly owns is Blue Bear.

My daughter has no Blue Bear but she has many possessions as well. Try taking something that's hers and you will hear the wail of the toddler war cry, "mine, mine, mine." This, however, isn't a quality particular to Yudi or Maya but to all toddlers. Babies, from the earliest stages are dominated and defined by possessiveness. They want what they want, they want it now, it's theirs, they are entitled to it and that is that. And as we all know, this quality isn't bad. It's healthy and befitting an infant, toddler and young child.

The challenge, however, is that this possessiveness doesn't go away. Right through childhood, adolescence, the teen and tween years and into adulthood, human beings can't help but attach themselves to things, to material possessions, often seeing those things, more or less like Blue Bear, as an extension of their very self.

C'mon, we all live like this. Who doesn't look out their window and think or at least feel an unvocalized sense of this notion "mine, mine, mine." Every time a passerby's dog does his business on my yard, I think this and if they don't pick up the dog's handiwork you better believe I'll go make sure they get "theirs, theirs, theirs" off "mine, mine, mine." Hey, it's my yard. I have every right to make this demand. I paid good money for this piece of real estate. I own it and only my dog gets to muck it up!

Seems fair enough, in my world view anyway, but this week's Torah Portion, Mishpatim found in the book of Exodus, forces us to grapple with Blue Bears, real estate and possessions in general. In this week's Parsha we encounter the laws of "owning" a slave.

Right from the beginning the Torah portion challenges this idea of "slavery." This situation is quickly turned into indentured servitude. The Torah allowed for such a relationship as a weaning process from the cruel slavery of the time (and slavery in this
country only a few hundred years ago, lest we judge to quickly). The rule, in a nutshell, is you may employee a servant (with numerous laws protecting their well-being) but after six years of service, you must set them free in the seventh year.

What is the reason for this law? Though it is complicated, when all is said and done, this is a profound teaching on the nature of possessions. The Torah was trying to elevate the consciousness of the time by conveying that we certainly cannot own another person. We may employ them for a period of time but we can never possess them. We can't possess another person and can't possess any material thing for that matter – not really.

Actually, the Torah and Jewish tradition are rather liberal when it comes to our material possessions. Judaism allows for possessions, understands they are real and necessary in living a full and complete life. However, material possessions come with a price, a shadow side. Whether we're talking about food, clothing, Blue Bears or houses, all of these items can slip from the realm of things into possessions and into stuff that we don't merely use or enjoy but come to define us, or worse yet, possess us!

Though this seems obvious, it is one of the hardest things human beings face. We all buy into the illusion of possessions in some way or another. Some of us define ourselves by our Blue Bears, others by our cars, our stock portfolios or even our looks. My son can barely imagine life without his bear but most of us can barely imagine life without x, y or z. Each of us has things in our lives, stuff, albeit important, valuable, meaningful stuff, that tends to define us and in the end, even owns us. This week's Torah portion warns us to realize we are not our stuff, not defined by material stuff and in the end we don't own a thing – at least no material thing.

Often when having this conversation someone will invariably argue that, at the very least, we own our bodies! Certainly, if anyone possesses our own body it would be us. No one has a right to lay claim to our bodies for sure, but that is very different than saying we own our bodies. After all, are we really our bodies? If I were to cut off my arm am I any less "me" than I was before? What about both arms? What about both legs? At what organ do you draw the line? Are we our brain? What part of our brain? Exactly where are "we" located in this heap of flesh I call my "self"? And what if I sustained serious burns which distorted my face? I might be physically unrecognizable to all who know me but wouldn't I still be "me" behind that façade?

The Jewish tradition holds that we didn't create our bodies, our parents didn't create our bodies; rather we were created by the Source of All Life. She created this body and it is Hers and Hers alone to reclaim whenever She so chooses. We are in this body, of this body, caretakers of this body but we are not the body and we are indeed more than just a body. We are using it, much like a tenant uses an apartment. Just as we do not have the right to make major alterations while paying rent in another's dwelling place, we do not have the right to make major alterations on our body. This is why tattoos are forbidden under Jewish law. It is why Jewish law prohibits cremation. It is why Judaism abhors suicide. It is not our apartment to demolish. We return it in the manner it was given. And I won't even touch apartment redecoration: lifts, tucks, augmentation and alterations (another topic for another time).

Ever since my father's death I've been thinking a lot about our roles as tenants occupying our little bungalows here on Earth. Death, in general, is just one of those moments when you remember this truth that we all know and yet so easily forget. But when the Landlord comes knocking, or in the case of my father, the tenant tears down the apartment, it is impossible not to realize that the body is truly not our own.

For a short period of time after a tragedy or a serious illness most of us see through the illusion of things. Still, time marches on and it is so easy to slip back into oblivion, right back into the illusion of owning our stuff. Blue Bears grow into bicycles, into cars, into homes and before you know it you are some uptight, raving control freak yelling at dog walkers to get their do-do off your yard. Certainly there is a place for ownership in the world we live. We need those Blue Bears to get us through parts of our lives and we
need our homes to be protected and stay warm. The issue is not whether or not we have possessions or even love our possessions, the question, actually more of an ongoing struggle, becomes, do you possess them or do they possess you?

So maybe it takes a death to wake us from our sleepwalking materialistic illusions. Maybe we can't have the proper perspective on what we really own until it is taken from us or falls apart. But even then, the clarity doesn't last, and frankly, who wants to live in such a somber, reactive manner. The goal of an authentic Jewish spiritual practice is therefore to challenge ourselves everyday, even the good days, especially the good days, to use the stuff, to engage the stuff and to somehow find a way not to become obsessed with and possessed by the possessions, the stuff in our lives.

Shabbat Shalom

Baruch HaLevi"

Monday, March 05, 2007

World Cup Cricket Tourney - Antigua Display Install

Not to brag too much but I just got home from two weeks on the Caribbean island Antigua in the West Indies (pronounced Antigah). It was a business trip for Multimedia LED, the company I am currently consulting. My purpose on the trip was to provide project management and IT support for our front end computer control system. Overall it was a fantastic trip and I learned a lot more about the digital sign business, the Caribbean islands and myself as a project manager.

The physical install went very well when we finally received our LED display modules. Due to our freight forwarding company "JSI" dropping the ball three times getting our modules to Antigua the installation took four days longer than planned
. What is infuriating to me about JSI is that they have yet to acknowledge full responsibility for the delay when they let our modules sit in Miami for three days missing two flights into Antigua. To top off the issue, they failed to secure priority shipment on a flight the following week. Hopefully they will take responsibility for their service failure or it might be difficult for us to trust them on another time sensitive project.

The entire project took just over two months from bid to completion and proved that Multimedia can run with the best of them. We had numerous critics saying it couldn't be done in such a short amount of time and to our benefit, they were promptly proven wrong.

The actual display is a 20 x 33 foot 17mm pixel pitch E4 (4-diode pixel pattern) full-color RGB LED display. It has a professional Kramer video switch/scaler with Multimedia's eClips control software. We can display anything from full-motion high-definition video feeds to avi, mpg, mov and wmv video files to bmp, jpg and gif images. The final product is impressive with a 700:1 contrast ratio and brightness enough to light up the entire Sir Vivian Richard stadium at midnight.

Hopefully the display will be the proper visual accessory to the 2007 ICC World Cricket Tournament at the end of this month. It was a great experience and one I will not soon forget.

As for my time spent enjoying the beaches of Antigua while waiting for our modules to arrive I got as much sun as a German red haired guy can. We visited the many beautiful beaches and bays of Antigua and ate Mahi Mahi and Coconut Shrimp every night. The island is a fantastic vacation destination with a safe environment and friendly locals. We stayed at the Antigua Village Resort, a rental beach-front condo community. The accommodations were very good with comfortable beds, a nice pool and a great location in Dickenson Bay. As one can imagine on any Caribbean island, the water was crystal clear with coral reefs and plenty of sea life. I will post more pictures on my personal website and you can click the title at the top to be sent there.

I am quite impressed with Multimedia and their abilities, especially with some very significant, yet uncontrollable setbacks. I feel fortunate to be a part of the process and hope that my contribution will be a lasting one.

Oh, and I decided I really like geckos.

- Mitch G