It is with sadness that I record the passing of Dr. Albert Arking of Potomac, Maryland. The world has lost an outstanding human being. Our family has lost a crown jewel. He was a loving husband, father, grandfather, brother—and our distinguished Mehutan, father of our son-in-law Dan. We pray that the Almighty will comfort Al’s family and his many friends, and that they will derive much strength and happiness from their many good memories of his life.
When I think of Al, I think of the famous rabbinic teaching about how God created Adam from the dust of the earth. The rabbis wondered about the source of this primordial dust. One opinion is that God took dust from the future location of the Temple in Jerusalem. A second opinion is that God took dust from the “four corners” of the earth.
These two opinions reflect two aspects of a human being. Ideally, we must be rooted to one place, one Holy Temple that defines our spirit and shapes our religious vision. But we also need to feel at home with the entire world. We are created from the dust of one singular place, but also from the dust of the “four corners” of the world. We are designed to be unique…and universal.
Al was born and raised in the Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn. Although Al lived most of his life away from Brooklyn and away from his birth community, he was deeply rooted in the Syrian Jewish tradition. He loved the minhagim. He chanted the Torah portions regularly, in the Syrian Sephardic tradition. He conveyed to his children and grandchildren the uniqueness of his family tradition. Al’s love of Judaism was at the essence of who he was as a human being. He studied Torah, he argued points of halakha (and I mean argue!), he sought truth. He and his wife Viviane were among the pioneers of the Orthodox synagogue of Potomac, and Al was a tireless activist in the congregation and in its Sephardic minyan. He was an outspoken advocate of the Jewish community and an ardent supporter of Israel.
God created Adam from the dust of one place, the Holy Temple. The intent was that each human being should be rooted in one place, should know who he or she is, should be loyal to the ideas and ideals of family tradition. Al was such a person.
But like Adam, Al was also created from the dust of the “four corners” of the world. Al had an expansive mind and an insatiable intellectual curiosity. He earned his Ph.D in physics from Cornell University in 1959, and went on to create an impressive career as a scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Since 1992 he was Principal Research Scientist in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Johns Hopkins University. Al’s special interests were atmospheric physics and global climatology. His mind literally spanned the “four corners” of the earth, and soared into the heavens. Through his vast reading and his extensive travels, Al was a participant in human civilization on a level that very few can achieve.
Al combined the qualities of uniqueness and universality. He was rooted in his Jewish tradition and he was a first-rate scientist and intellectual.
But when I recall Al, I also envision him with his wife, children and grandchildren…and I see a man who truly loved his family and was grateful to the Almighty for all the blessings that had been showered on him. I see him at the head of his dining room table surrounded by Viviane and their children and grandchildren. I see his special grin, his beaming pride in his family, his genuine sense of fulfillment in life. These are gifts that are not vouchsafed to everyone.
He had the blessing of spending the first days of Pessah with his family, rejoicing in their love for him and his love for them, knowing that he had transmitted the traditions and ideals to his next generations.
The Torah teaches that we were all created from dust, and to dust we will return. The ultimate questions asked of each of us are: did we reach our potential as unique and universal human beings? Did our lives make the world a better place? Will those who come after us be stronger and happier because we lived, and strove, and dreamed and worked? For Albert Arking, we can safely answer all these questions with one word: Yes.
Rest in peace, Al. You made a difference in all our lives.