Monday, December 28, 2009

871. Parashat Vayigash and cable TV

I'm not a big fan of change, much as I appreciate the need for it in my life. For the past 12 years I've had a ridiculously good deal with cable TV; my building bought it in bulk, folding the cost into my maintenance. So I essentially got a zillion channels for free. But there were many tenants who wanted neither cable nor to subsidize those who did. This didn't dissuade the co-op board, however, since the deal was advantageous with respect to some archaic tax laws.

Then, last year, the archaic laws were repealed, a good thing overall, but not with respect to cable. My free ride was over. I surely can't afford to pay actual money for the kind of TV to which I've become accustomed. Truth is, I watch very little, mostly on broadcast channels, and use those other thousand to extend procrastination and fuel boredom until I get so annoyed with myself that I have to do the thing I was avoiding.

So on Thursday morning, with mixed feelings but knowing I was doing right by my bank balance, I lugged the fancy, LED-festooned box back to the cable TV office and opted instead for the minimum amount of service possible by plugging the cable directly into my TV. Conveniently, last week I bought wires to attach my laptop to my TV (I'm a gadget freak, within the confines of my tightwad inclinations). So now I can still watch, via Boxee, Hulu, and Netflix, on a nice, shiny 32" screen, much of what was on those million channels. (Some day soon more people will watch like this, and cable companies will be unmasked for the robber barons they really are.)

Back to change. I was alarmed at how unsettled I felt about this whole thing. It brought back memories of that first rush when hooking up cable years ago in Queens; I took the day off work and spent hours flipping back and forth between MTV and CNN, marveling at the modernity of it all. Last week I bored all my friends with my tale of cable woe. Even though I now have access to more programs than ever before, I didn't want to get used to a different, less spontaneous routine. Although I never watched those thousands of home decorating and bizarre reality shows, I still wanted to know they were there, symbols of comfortable middle-classness. Abandoning them felt like failure, which I know makes no sense at all.

After a few days fiddling with the new setup, I now feel less a cheapskate and more a high-tech pioneer. The newness is fun. I thought of this on Shabbat, when the rabbi spoke about the phrase "fertile and increase greatly" as it appears in the last line of Parashat Vayigash:

"Thus Israel settled in the land of Egypt, in the region of Goshen; they acquired holdings in it, and were fertile and increased greatly." (Genesis 47:27)

She compared this to other "fertile and increase greatly" instances in the Torah. In most, producing offspring is paired with the idea of acquiring land or conquering a people or place. In one notable case it isn't—when God predicts the future of Ishmael, an outsider, an "other". I'm greatly simplifying the rabbi's point, but what I took away was that being out of step with a dominant practice—in this case, following literally the commandment to have children, especially lots of them—can make us feel like "other" as well, without rights to mastery or dominion. But we need to remember that there can be other interpretations of "fertile": giving birth to new ideas, for example, or healing and repairing old ones.

It seem sacrilegious to compare Torah with cable TV, but I was feeling just this—I am a lesser person for not having the same cable channels as the rest of the world. But there are other interpretations of "a million channels": mine happen to be on the computer. Turning it around (“There are seventy faces to the Torah: Turn it around and around, for everything is in it.” —Bamidbar Rabba 13:15), I thought about other parts of my life where I'm reluctant to look beyond the p'shat, the literal, majority view. Sometimes it's easier to follow the crowd, even when the cost is too high in the long run. I guess I should be grateful to my robber-baron cable company for their role in this little epiphany.

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