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.