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.


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.

Ditching Yahweh

Even straight-laced Jews like me can fall into strange cults if they’re not careful.

Indeed, thanks to the Internet especially, we are in immediate contact with all sorts of strange folk even in our own homes. We pay money for the privilege. We are weird.

Anyway. Let me describe for you, in brief, a particular sort of cultist you may have run into.

Unsought, unsolicited, they nevertheless eventually turn up. Like a nasty mold blooming in a dark corner of a synagogue never touched by sunlight; like rot setting into the fatty extremities of the body Judaic unwarmed by even the capillary flow of lifeblood; like a single bot trolling the lonely bowels of a long-forgotten religious subreddit — someone always starts talking about “Yahweh.”

What “Yahweh” is not: The name of the Jewish G-d according to just about anyone who worships him.

What “Yahweh” is: A sort of social signal, like perfectly round glasses or a man’s chest hair framed by a pastel collar; a portent of what’s to come, a clear indicator of the type of person we’re dealing with.

And make no mistake, in conversations about Judaism the one who says “Yahweh” always loses. This isn’t because of the religious injunction against pronouncing G-d’s name, since Yahweh is not G-d’s name. In fact, the true pronunciation of G-d’s name is lost to us. No, you lose when you use “Yahweh” because “Yahweh” users are either (A) antagonistic or misled academics or (B) really odd provincial bumpkins who manage to keep talking about Judaism for years without learning anything.

The Type-A Yahwist is a professor who has studied the history of Judaism from an academic perspective and has come to think that “Yahweh” is the original pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton. They also tend to think that “Yahweh” was a member of the Canaanite pantheon who eventually assumed the role of the G-d of Israel, which is fine, but when you say “Yahweh” at the beginning you’re giving it all away from the get-go.

The Type-B Yahwist is a commenter on chabad.org who loves Jews but just can’t bring themselves to learn Hebrew, or ask a Jew what G-d’s name is (or, more importantly, isn’t). They heard “Yahweh” from a Type-A (or some mysterious Christian source unknown to me) and only mean to sound hip and in-the-know by calling G-d that name.

This typology of Yahwists reminds me of an important lesson from Chassidus. Imagine a thundering, luminous river of Truth sustaining the world. The river, since it is Truth and Light, leaves no room for darkness and falsehood. Everything that touches the water becomes bright and transparent, real and alive. Such is the power of the Truth. That which tastes not of the water, is, in turn, not. And so: There can be no falsehood, for to exist is simply to be a vessel for the Truth.

With two exceptions. (A) At the river’s head, where the waters rage with unrivaled force and have not yet truly become a river but are rather pure, formless, Light, there is a moment when anything might partake of it and survive, for it is life itself in all its possibilities and does not yet discriminate. (B) At the very end of the river’s flow, where one last finger of water extends as a calm pool to slake some minor object’s thirst for being, there is so little light, and so little truth, that clinging to the back of that object a lie might perchance exist, a parasite off the truth, real and undestroyed by contradiction.

The Type-A Yahwist knows Judaism as he knows much else: as part of a synergistic whole, whose grounding principle is the Yahwist’s own understanding. Within his intellect, essential truths are trimmed if necessary. He knows Judaism so much that his knowing becomes primary and the object of his knowledge secondary. The Type-B Yahwist knows too little, and it is not his own intellect that he would lose if he knew the truth, but his own ignorance. Rather than consuming the Truth whole, he fears to be consumed by it, and is content to remain on the edge of the Truth, never bothering to disabuse himself of his mistaken notions. Type-A is arrogant, for from where he stands the Truth is secondary to him. Type-B is afraid and so knows nothing.

The solution for Type-A is to show him that even if the Truth of everything is allowed to speak in its own voice, there can still be unity. The solution for Type-B is to show him that subservience to the Truth is better than freedom without it.

What all Yahwists have in common, in summary, is what every lie has in common, and that is, a conception in contradiction to reality. This is a sorry state of affairs. But it is also good news for those who seek the truth. Since a lie is in contradiction to reality, the reality of the lie is itself unstable. In other words, a lie is only true as long as someone keeps speaking it. Judaism has a G-d named Yahweh only as long as people outside of it say it does.

And sometimes…

Sometimes I worry that I practice Yahweh Judaism.

That’s right. That’s my cult. I live a relatively secluded Jewish life in a small Jewish community. I don’t learn from teachers as often as I’d like. In fact, I learn from teachers even less than I did in Yeshiva, and in Yeshiva it wasn’t much at all.

On the one hand, I’m worried that my Judaism, not exposed to the criticism of true teachers and those in the fold, may have developed corners or edges that are not in accordance with the truth of tradition. I am worried that my Judaism has, over time, become more about me than about Judaism.

On the other hand, I’m worried that I’m not really involved enough in Judaism at all. That, in my far-off, provincial service, I do not fall in the category of a practicing Jew. Perhaps this is the real reason why I have chosen, for the moment, to exist on the Jewish edge: because I am afraid of losing my independence in an intensely Jewish context.

I begin to wonder…was it ever real? Did it ever exist? Was I chasing the truth, or a moment’s fantasy? Did I worship G-d, or my own Yahweh?

This past week, I found the answer.

And the answer is: Go to New York. Go to the community. Go to the Rebbe.

Because if a lie is unstable and exists only as long as a liar maintains it, then the truth is solid as a rock. The truth exists without anyone’s help. The truth, like a river, is refreshing, because it doesn’t need our help.

This week, I went to New York, and I let go. I stopped telling myself stories about what Judaism is, what it means to have a G-d, what it means to be connected.

This week, I let Judaism exist. I let myself be surrounded by it, submerged in it. I let my hands brush across the surface of the wall, and I found it solid, ancient, indestructable. I felt the tension leave me as I realized that G-d and Judaism never go anywhere, that they are constant as everything else moves. Even though I’m not in Yeshiva, the Yeshiva exists; it is there; the students are the same as always. The synagogues with their crown jewel Torahs stand resplendent like a signal fire.

This week, I reminded myself that Judaism is not a cult of Yahweh, that it exists because it exists, like the moon, like a blizzard.

This week, I went back to the place where I last forded the water, and found the river still there, peaceful, eternal, real.

I have done worse in its absence than it has in mine, which makes me humble and happy. Humble to have had the privilege of bathing in the waters; happy to know that they were no ephemeral mirage, but ancient as the earth.

I know what I must do now. I know I must kneel on her banks, and dip my canteen beneath the surface, and carefully carry it back across the lonely miles. I know that the way is hot and dangerous, a large and terrible desert full of snakes and scorpions.

But if ever I lose my way, I can take a sip, and hear what the water says:

It’s real. It’s real. It’s real.

This, despite our ignorance. We who choose the true path do not ourselves know how to pronounce that great and terrible name. But one day, when we make it across the sands and dig our own wells in our own corners of the wilderness and make for the water a home, we will learn that secret word.

And it will not be “Yahweh.”


The picture and its caption are honest-to-goodness from a book from the 19th century.


Originally posted on Hevria.

A Browser Game That’s Good For Your Soul

“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” – G.K. Chesterton

I’m sitting hunched over my strangely molded slab of metal and plastic, pressing at it and hoping for a response, desirous that something rescue me from the meaningless wash of the social media news cycles, feeds, people, demons. I need something human, something different. And then, like some lesser demi-Columbus, I stumble upon a glowing treasure of the Internet.

It’s midmorning and alongside my Facebook and Gmail lies a browser tab full of European street signs, which I consider closely, looking for one I recognize. I switch back to another tab, which displays a deserted two-lane street through an evergreen forest with no distinctive landmarks except for a yellow-orange circle on the roadside stating the speed limit in kilometers. It could be a street almost anywhere in the world. And that’s exactly the problem.

Wooded lanes are the bane of my existence when I play GeoGuessr. I grew up in the American south, so I at least know when the trees are not of the deciduous forests of the Eastern U.S., but I’m no botanist, and I mistake one street for Nebraska when it belongs to Western Australia, netting me a whopping zero points and a bruised ego. It could just as easily have been in Bolivia or Botswana, Finland or Fiji.

The premise of GeoGuessr is quite simple: You are presented the Google street image of five different locations, from anywhere in the world (there are other game modes that can limit it to certain areas or countries). You are free to move about the scene, just as on Google Maps. You can walk down the road; you can zoom in on landmarks, names, signage, anything. The goal is to point out on a map of the world where, exactly, you are seeing. The closer your estimation, the more points you get. It is fun. It is enlightening.

I get another nondescript road next, but this time I am aided by some handy life experience, the summer I spent in rural Minnesota. Those rows of corn stalks and the familiar-looking trees must be in the American midwest. I guess Iowa. It was in Wisconsin. Not bad.

GeoGuessr presents challenges like these at every turn, a series of whodunnits with our glorious world as the only culprit. They will demand every ounce of ingenuity you possess. At first you’re gonna approach it all confident-like. Like I did (“I’ve been to some countries. I got this.”), you’ll tell yourself that you can do it without the help of a search engine or Wikipedia, with just your wits to guide you. But then you will see strange structures and political advertisements and store windows that just might scratch at a long-buried childlike curiosity about everything. When that happens, take my advice: Give in. Make some searches. Explore. You’ll find delight in locating a single branch of an international chain to within five feet and getting full points on the challenge. Strangely, it is equally thrilling to try navigating the website of a Japanese convenience store and have your guess thrown off by hundreds of miles because you don’t know the difference between a mom ‘n’ pop and a conglomerate in other countries no matter how worldly you think you are. Turns out these stores are as common in Japan as 7-11s in New Jersey, but, of course, I didn’t know that.

After a few rounds, you start to feel a bit smarter. You know with an absurd pride that those little mailboxes that in America could be mistaken for lawn ornaments are in fact indigenous to Scandinavian countries. You learn that company names and addresses on highway trucks are only really useful for identifying the country but can lead you hundreds of miles away from where you need to be. This is perfectly logical to any American such as I who has taken a long road trip and noticed exotic license plates on the interstate. But you don’t realize that when you’re trying to get your bearings in Brazil, which, by the way, is a country approximately the size of the galaxy. And don’t get me started on Canada.

There is something profound about this little browser game. It is an opportunity for complacent, comfortable people like me to get thrown back on their own ingenuity and resources. It is a game for travelers and outdoorsmen that, paradoxically, is played over the Internet, from your bedroom, in your pajamas. The traveler would have it that nature and the wide world are great things, great things, greater than any person. Communion with the world can cow even the greatest ego; no one is great in the vast rice fields of China or at the foot of Kilimanjaro.

But I tend to think that the opposite is true, that the world is only a large collection of small things and that revelation and humility are in mailboxes (or websites) just as much as mountaintops, if you know how to look at them. What makes Brazil, Brazil, is as much the shape of the headlights on the motorway and the flowers in a small apartment balcony pot as it is the bustle of Sao Paolo or the stunning beaches of Rio. And that is what this game brings to light.

When the world is made into a mystery, the normal thoughts of the tourist flutter away. We must actually see to know where we are. The allure of the world lies at the place where the mind meets the mailbox. Ultimately, it is more about appreciating how small we are than appreciating how great the universe is, and that in turn makes the earth far greater than it ever could be if we strode across its surface assured of our own omniscience.

To play GeoGuessr is to assume the role not of the tourist but of the pilgrim. We are not in the place to assimilate everything into our lives but for it to assimilate us, to become lost in the identity of the other. It teaches us that the solution to being lost and alone is not to grow taller than the mountains and broader than rivers. On the contrary, that is the ultimate loneliness, for nothing will be worth our time. But if I can become small enough, the keys of my laptop will loom like fiery mountains and the motes of dust before my windows will seem like dandelions, driven by the wind.

Some might say that Google Street View is a triumph of mankind’s dominance. It is an astonishing accomplishment and a victory to photograph all of the world’s streets. But the deepest expression of that victory is my ability to learn awe walking down a long outback road sitting in my room, the two experiences meshed, mystery drawn into a non-mysterious space, the world made my home.

No speed limit necessary.


Photo from Flickr.


Originally posted on Hevria.