Crying Over Spilled Whiskey

Nodding in despair, leaning on the Chevy, I considered my options. It was a bright Friday morning in May and the southern sun beat down on my hat and jacket, mocking the choices that tormented me as they torment all mortal men. The short ceremony at the imposing villa was over and I’d retreated to the sidewalk where the Tahoe stood waiting at the edge of an immaculate lawn. Clutched in my fingers, golden in the outdoor radiance, was a plastic tumbler half-full with exquisite Johnnie Walker Blue Label whiskey, smooth as satin.

And I couldn’t drink it. Because I’m a shy introvert who lives in Atlanta. No introversion, no problem; I’d still be inside for another half-hour, more than enough time to swallow such a small amount of liquor and drown it in cake. No Atlanta, no issue either; when do you ever need to drive in New York City? Maybe I could just bring it along for later, I considered. But that’s no good – I really don’t need the stress of breaking that law. I also wasn’t gonna just stand around for a while and drink it on the sidewalk; it’s weird, and besides, I’d already begun to perspire.

So – looking away like I was shooting my dog, I spilled the whiskey out onto the grass, jumped in the car, and fled.

The drive home was long, too long, so I had plenty of time to reflect on my guilt.

My first thought was that watering weeds with $180 whiskey is akin to flushing money down the drain. This is, in fact, the one act universally recognized as sacrilege in America. Flushing money down the toilet is far worse than crucifixes in urine or Mary smeared with elephant dung or mean cartoons about Muhammad. Crucifixes and paintings are useless, after all, whereas money is God. ISIS or the Taliban might burn the American flag but are never zealous enough to burn American dollars; no communist on the planet is so incensed at capitalist transgressions that they won’t pinch pennies to help fund the revolution. Even in turn-of-the-century Vienna, someone bought the coffee. And here I, in plain daylight, in the sight of G-d and (now) man, images of Michael Scott crumpling bills and proverbial Rabbis throwing checks into graves flashing through my mind, had the temerity to commit the mortal sin of vainly spilling…scotch.

But it was against just such thoughts that I received my eldritch schooling in the paths of mysticism. My Chassidic education involved not scotch but a lot of cheap vodka and stories about mud. Mud is central to the Chabad outlook; it was both the literal and figurative ground of shtetl life, that pervasive Russian “bloteh.” Eventually mud became the primary Chassidic metaphor for money. After all, what is the physical without G-d? What fleshly riches prevail when the riches of the spirit are withdrawn? Honestly, it’s hard to cry over spilled whiskey without my cheeks stinging just a bit. Mendel Futerfas was joyous in Siberia because he could still serve G-d in a vicious labor camp, but I’m sad about scotch on the grass? Where are my priorities? If Reb Mendel spoke English, he’d say, “Feh.” To a Chassid, G-d is what matters, and all else is idol worship. The destruction of money is no more an outrage than a wagon rolling through the square.

However…We are not peasants, and it is too simple to call the Johnnie Walker Blue Label blended whiskey merely physical. This is disingenuous. The peasant could weigh all that is limited against G-d and choose the creator with a free conscience, for he generally took little pleasure in the structure of those limitations and therefore ignored it. Much more complicated were the paths of those who knew the world and basked in it and categorized its pleasures into top-ten lists. The Russian peasants could taste and see physicality and chose G-d instead. But their minds were open to the divine words of a nigun, or the tune of a Chassidic story. Never had they read a convincing treatise on the origins, relevance, gradations, and revolutionary importance of mud. Their thought process was: “Mud can buy food. But all food really comes from G-d.” Then, for kicks, they’d say, “Really, we only eat because it’s a divine commandment.” Sublime.

But I, regrettably, have sunk much deeper than an illiterate Russian peasant. I have, in my low exile, tasted not just the body of whiskey but its sustaining soul. Johnnie Walker Blue Label is not just mud. It is the product of artisanal effort and craftsmanship. It is what happens when man does not suffice with mud but decides to make something, to invest the powers of his soul into the mud to grow grain, and then through an ancient and delicate process refine the grain, and blend tastes, and age the mixture in casks. Then, boldest of all, he places his name on the label and calls the thing his, his soul made it, and no other’s; he is a creator, and he is proud.

His golden product enraptures not only the senses but the mind; it is not merely subtle, but also an achievement that stands for something. It stands for how we can take coarseness and refine it, take the common and make it valuable, take the dead and give it soul. If whiskey is mud and we feel no regret returning it to the earth, then whence the sorrow in returning the whiskey maker to the earth? His worldly efforts were naught, the joy in his craft was misplaced, and those hours in between prayers when he toiled over the stills were only so much stirring of the mud.

No, my mind cannot wholly swallow this religious doctrine, cannot consign so much of our endeavor and billions of Chinese lives to formlessness and death. In my appreciation of the soul of that animal, man, I have lost touch with that animal’s G-dly purpose. Either worldly value or G-dly value prevails. Either we cry over whiskey, or we cry over our divine souls.

This, then, is the challenge of Johnnie Walker to those of us who would have both G-d and man: Dare to call the scotch more than mud. Dare to wonder at the worldly industry and audacity of humanity. And then, and only then, measure G-d’s true stature as he who both creates that greatness and transcends it. Only once we learn to measure worldly value in G-dly terms can we finally sit down to a hard-earned drink…

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Hong Conquered

It is one thing to consider oneself humble before G-d; it is quite another to take the ferry into Victoria Harbor at night and feel the glowing sentinels loom all around.

Hong Kong is perhaps most famous for its endless electric nights, but to my mind, discovering it is like discovering the dawn. The Rebbe says we feel hope in the morning because it is a time transparent to the constant renewal of creation, the fact that the past has no particular bearing on the present lest G-d make it so. This is a humbling thought, and a joyous one, and it filled me as one evening right before the sunset I found the Peak.

“The Peak”, normally considered, is an observation deck reachable by tram that gives you a staggering view of Hong Kong. It is however not the actual peak of the mountain, which I found unacceptable. And so, with the sun dangerously close to the horizon, I hiked further. After an hour of getting lost (it is impossible not to get lost in Hong Kong. It is as if MC Escher painted Manhattan on a slinky and gave it a Chinese name. It runs on a grid system if the grid exists in non-Euclidean space. It is often impossible to cross the street on HK Island without retracing your steps, and going out the wrong subway station exit sometimes leaves you, blinking and confused, approximately in Belgium), with only fifteen minutes of red sky left, I found myself coughing and gasping on a tiny, sandy grass field with three Western tourists and four Chinese schoolchildren and the entire world beneath my feet.

20160302_183717

I pulled on a sweater against the biting wind and stared like an idiot.

This is what I saw:

Hong Kong is not the work of man. Hong Kong is a handful of pebbles tossed in the river. I could count them, from the peak. It is a resistance, friction against the flow of nature, a locus in space-time where the mindstuff and ambitions of strutting man met the islands G-d had kept for them and the ripple of their clashing threw a city up upon the shore. The city struggles with those green islands, holds the beaches, rages in place, while the hills above roll into the Pacific sunset, implacable.

All this I saw, and I thought — I did not create it.

An odd thought, all things considered. I did not create New York, or Jerusalem, or even my own home. It seems a late time for me to come to this earth-shattering realization.

But there is knowing, and there is knowing. There is that which we easily conquer and assimilate, and there is that which we cannot grasp, which one flashing vision shows to elude us entirely. These are peak moments, when we stand on that narrow plank between us and eternity and stare it in the eye and feel ourselves vanquished.20160302_212628

Just for a moment, I wondered:

If I did not make it, where did it come from? How can this heavy, gleaming tangle swim into view as if it has been here a hundred years? How, in fact, can there be anything at all on this side of the globe? How is it not here because I’m thinking it here, but here because it is? I never could have made shopping malls that are actually pedestrian streets, or the shocking green Hippodrome like a slice of lime in the speckled rum of the city, or the preposterously narrow ting tings that carve through the city like packed, wandering hallways. Never could I have made them, and even now I barely know them.

If Hong Kong has really been here all this time, known to G-d and men, and I have only met it today, then who am I? What is one man before this brooding beast?

So I descended the peak and picked my way back home and packed myself into a warm corner where the wind could not reach me, and, all wrapped up in that which I did not make, embraced sweet oblivion.

 

 

Originally posted on Hevria.