When I visit my father, our daughter, or my in-laws, I sometimes stroll across the street to Marshall Nirenberg. He received the 1968 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology for having deciphered the genetic code which showed all living things are related. It’s pretty cool having a Nobel Prize winner across the street from your loved ones . . . When I visit my father, our daughter, or my in-laws, I sometimes stroll across the street to Marshall Nirenberg. He received the 1968 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology for having deciphered the genetic code which showed all living things are related. It’s pretty cool having a Nobel Prize winner across the street from your loved ones . . .
Let me be clear. My family doesn’t live across the street from Professor Nirenberg, any more than he lives across the street from them. Rather, they are buried across a path from one another in Sharon Gardens, a large Jewish cemetery in Westchester County, 25 miles north of Manhattan. It is quite an accomplishment to receive a Nobel Prize; yet until I read his tombstone, I had never heard of Nirenberg; it’s only because he’s my family’s neighbor that I became acquainted with him. Funny whom you meet in a cemetery . . .
While in New York a month ago I had a few free hours before my flight home. On an impulse I decided to visit the grave of my Uncle Ismar. Ismar was serving in the army of occupation when killed in Japan a few months after V-J day. He had just turned 25. Though our son, Itamar, is named after my uncle, I had never met Ismar, because he had died nearly twenty years before my birth. Grandma Johanna, of blessed memory, couldn’t afford the cost of a burial in a Jewish cemetery, so she let Uncle Sam pick up the tab. Ismar’s final resting place is at Pinelawn National Cemetery on Long Island.
When I first saw Ismar’s grave, I was struck by the fact that it was but a tiny island in a sea of identical white tombstones stretching across the horizon. Despite the fact that Pinelawn houses the remains of 350,000 veterans and their spouses, it seemed that Ismar was alone, surrounded by strangers. To his left was a fellow named Charlie Clarke from Georgia who, judging by the date of his death and division, most likely died in the battle for the Rhineland in December, 1944. Buried on Ismar’s right was Cleveland Weeks, a Private in the Quartermaster’s Corp, who died in December, 1943. And immediately behind my uncle’s grave is that of a fellow Jew, Staff Sergeant Lawrence Lustgarten, who served in the 491st Army Airforce Bomber Squadron. Again, judging the date of his death and the assignment of his squadron which I looked up on-line, Sgt. Lustgarten probably died while bombing Japanese forces in China in 1944.
These young men from dramatically different backgrounds lived and died hundreds or thousands of miles apart. King David’s beautiful words about the death of King Saul and his son Jonathan do not apply: “הַנֶּאֱהָבִ֤ים וְהַנְּעִימִם֙ בְּחַיֵּיהֶ֔ם וּבְמוֹתָ֖ם לֹ֣א נִפְרָ֑דוּ — Beloved and cherished, they were never parted in life or in death” (II Samuel 1:23). My uncle and his neighbors never met in life. Only in death will they rest side-by-side for all eternity. If there’s meaning to be found the proximity of their remains it is that they were all part of the “Great Generation” which fought the tyranny of the Third Reich and the Japanese Empire. Perhaps that’s meaning enough.
The first time I heard the term “meaningful adjacency” was during a visit to the 9/11 Memorial in lower Manhattan. At the site where each of the Twin Towers stood, there’s a pool surrounded by a railing on which panels are mounted listing the names of those who died on that tragic date of September 11, 2001. The original proposal called for the names of the dead to be placed randomly around the two reflecting pools marking the sites of the North and South Towers. The designers, Michael Arad and Peter Walker explained that “any arrangement that tries to impose meaning through physical adjacency will cause grief and anguish to people who might be excluded from that process, furthering the sense of loss that they are already suffering.”
But Arad and Walker were wrong. In response to more than 1,200 requests from family members, they decided to arrange the names of the the nearly 3,000 victims using an algorithm to create “meaningful adjacencies” based on relationships — proximity at the time of the attacks, as well as company or organization affiliations for those working at the World Trade Center or the Pentagon. The goal was to surround each victim with the names of those they sat with, worked with, those they lived with and, very possibly, those they died with.
The term “meaningful adjacency” has stuck in my head ever since. The phrase captures what so many of us seek when we consider where we want to be buried. It is natural to derive meaning and comfort from knowing you’ll be laid to rest near loved ones. Ask my assistant Danielle, who handles purchases for plots at our cemeteries. The quest for meaningful adjacency is what underlies the conversation of congregants thinking about where to purchase plots: Will it be near parents, spouses, or God forbid, children? Should one be interred by the side of one’s first spouse or one’s second? Sometimes it’s even about the folks next to whom a person doesn’t want to be buried. Occasionally we have to deal with the difficult religious question of disinterment. Though generally frowned upon by Jewish law, under some circumstances it’s permissible to relocate a body, but only when doing so creates a meaningful adjacency that more than offsets the disrespect of disinterment. Where we “live,” so to speak, after we’ve died is given significance by spending eternity near the folks about whom we most cared in life.
In death we find meaning in the adjacencies of those buried near us. In life, however, it can go both ways. In other words, adjacency can foster meaning just as much as meaning creates adjacency. Our values and priorities can shape our choices of where we live and why, or what we choose to own; but by the same token, our surroundings and possessions can also subtly shape our values and priorities in ways we scarcely notice, but are no less real for the lack of attention they receive.
In the Torah, Abraham’s nephew Lot chooses to move his family to the city of Sodom. He isn’t seduced by their immorality or enticed by their depravity. Rather, “וַיִּשָּׂא־ל֣וֹט אֶת־עֵינָ֗יו וַיַּרְא֙ אֶת־כָּל־כִּכַּ֣ר הַיַּרְדֵּ֔ן כִּ֥י כֻלָּ֖הּ מַשְׁקֶ֑ה לִפְנֵ֣י ׀ שַׁחֵ֣ת ה’ אֶת־סְדֹם֙ וְאֶת־עֲמֹרָ֔ה — And Lot looked around and saw how well-watered the entire plain of the Jordan was, before God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah” (Genesis 13:10). For a shepherd it was an ideal locale for pasturage. Of course, that the bad character of his new neighbors didn’t seem to bother Lot is itself a comment on his character. But perhaps the most fateful consequence of Lot’s decision to live in Sodom was the environmental impact on his daughters. After Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt for turning to watch Sodom’s destruction, he and his daughters take refuge in a cave . . . where they get their father drunk and sleep with him. While justifying their incest as a need to repopulate the world in the wake of a destruction they believed to be universal, commentator Rabbi Dr. Joseph Hertz notes, “This explanation is untenable, seeing they had just left Zoar [a town which had suffered no devastation]. Their conduct does not admit of any extenuation; they were true children of Sodom.” Children live what they learn; they learn by what they see around them.
In a very different take on the influence of our surroundings, a wealthy man once entreated the ancient sage, Rabbi Yose ben Kisma, to accept a lucrative position as the spiritual leader of a community with no rabbi. Despite the promise of a 100,000 golden dinarii as well as precious stones and jewels, the rabbi declined the offer, saying, “אִם אַתָּה נוֹתֵן לִי כָּל כֶּסֶף וְזָהָב וַאֲבָנִים טוֹבוֹת וּמַרְגָּלִיּוֹת שֶׁבָּעוֹלָם, אֵינִי דָר אֶלָּא בִּמְקוֹם תּוֹרָה — Were you to give me all the money, jewels, and pearls in the entire world, I would only dwell in a place of Torah” (Pirkei Avot 6:9). Rabbi Yose ben Kisma understood the concept of meaningful adjacency, even if unacquainted with the term itself.
In Judaism there is a concept of tumah, which is often translated as “ritual impurity.” It’s an unfortunate translation, because in English the word “impurity” has a negative connotation, which the Hebrew doesn’t have; tumah is a morally neural term. One can only become tameh through contact with a source of tumah, such as childbirth, dead bodies, certain species of animals, or various body fluids. None of the foregoing are “bad”, they’re simply a part of life. For Jews, cemeteries are sacred places, but they also happen to communicate tumah. The concept of tumah emphasizes the impact of environment on our spiritual selves. We are whom we touch, where we live, what we see.
The upper middle class family whose kids are raised in an exclusively white neighborhood attending a largely white private school are likely to grow up so immersed in white privilege as to be unable to see the ways in which it has shaped their existence. The African American youngster raised in a ghetto neighborhood with failing schools will possess a radically different view of the police, city government, or the public school system. The youngster who grows up in a trailer park in rural Suwanee County, Florida surrounded by adults who’ve never met a Jew may well have a preconception of Jews influenced by her surroundings.
In this way we are no different than Lot or Rabbi Yose ben Kisma whose lives were shaped by their neighborhoods. To be sure, there are Jews compelled for one reason or another to live in a place lacking in Jewish life. If that truly bothers them, however, they will go the extra mile to create a meaningful Jewish existence, and that extra effort may actually add unexpected depth to their Jewish identity (indeed, I know this personally from having lived in Japan for a year). But if Judaism is important enough to them, they’re also likelier to depart for greener Jewish pastures when time and circumstances permit.
Yet if the absence of Jewish institutions plays little or no role in deciding where to live, it is not only a potential sign of Judaism’s marginal relevance to that person, it is also likely to further erode his or her link with Jewish life. When a high school senior decides on a college with few Jews and no organized Jewish life, it’s not only evidence of Judaism’s current irrelevance to her but portends greater estrangement from Jewish life because of its absence at a critical moment in her life. Like a photographic negative, meaningful adjacency also consists of what we choose not to live with, the experiences and opportunities of which we deprive ourselves, whether intentionally or not.
The concept of meaningful adjacency also finds expression in the objects with which we surround ourselves. More than 25 years ago, Susan and I were visiting the parents of a fellow rabbinical student in Rochester, New York. Theirs was a well-to-do family and we walked around the house oohing and ahhing their art collection. On one wall was a Chagall, on another a Rembrandt, on a third was a Picasso . . . these were not reproductions, but the real deal. When we expressed to my friend’s father how impressed we were by his art collection, he replied, “Yeah, they’re nice, but here, let me show you something really special.” It was hard to imagine what could possible top the incredible display of art we had just seen. We followed him into another room and there, in a glass-fronted cabinet was a collection of pushkes, tzedakah boxes from various countries and centuries. There is no question that the value of the artwork far exceeded the monetary worth of the pushkes, but it was equally clear that this man derived far more meaning from the tzedakah boxes than from the masterworks on his walls. For him the latter was decoration, but the former a reflection of his own commitment to charitable giving and Jewish life.
Next time you visit Israel it’s worth taking a trip to Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev. It is here that David Ben-Gurion lived after his retirement from politics until his death in 1973. You can visit Ben Gurion’s house, which is more of a large hut than anything else. Everything has been left exactly as it was when he died. If you take a tour of the site, you will quickly see that Ben-Gurion was a man of few pretensions and possessed little appetite for material goods. You will also see that the one thing he had in incredible abundance was books. He was a voracious reader in several languages and owned a vast library. In the objects found in his modest home, you’ll learn a lot about the character of David Ben-Gurion.
And this is true of all of us. If you died today and a curator were to create an exhibit of your life frozen in time, what would be found in your pockets? On your nightstand? In your desk or wardrobe? What payments would your last bank statement reflect, to whom would you have written checks in the last few weeks of your life? What would your computer’s files contain, and what would they say about your character?
True meaningful adjacency doesn’t come from the person we declare ourselves to be, but from the testimony submitted by our actual surroundings and possessions. “I am proud of my Jewish heritage,” a person proclaims. Yet a walk through his home reveals no mezuzah on the door, no Jewish ritual objects or books on the shelves in the family room. His check stubs and bank statements reveal no charitable giving to Jewish causes; his correspondence indicates he belongs to various civic associations, but not a synagogue. There is no reason for us to doubt this person’s declaration of Jewish pride, but it is equally undeniable that it possesses no record and leaves no legacy. To proclaim values for which there is no evidence of having existed is a little like being buried in an unmarked grave.
In Midrash Kohelet Rabbah there’s a story about a hungry fox who spies a vineyard of luscious grapes. He squeezes through the fence and greedily eats to his heart’s content, but when he tries to get through the fence, he has become too fat to escape. To leave the vineyard he has no choice but to fast until he has returned to his original size. Upon his departure, he stares sadly at the delicious grapes and says, “O vineyard, O vineyard, how good are you and your fruit! All that is inside you is beautiful, but what benefit can one get from you? As one enters you, so he comes out, hence Scripture teaches, ‘כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֤ר יָצָא֙ מִבֶּ֣טֶן אִמּ֔וֹ עָר֛וֹם יָשׁ֥וּב לָלֶ֖כֶת כְּשֶׁבָּ֑א — As one comes out of his mother’s womb so must he depart, naked as he came — וּמְא֨וּמָה֙ לֹֽא־יִשָּׂ֣א בַֽעֲמָל֔וֹ שֶׁיֹּלֵ֖ךְ בְּיָדֽוֹ — He shall take nothing of his wealth with him’” (Ecclesiastes 5:14).
No, we can’t take it with us. But that’s just the point. What we leave behind are all the meaningful adjacencies we’ve created, all the objects and clues which tell the future the truth about our values, beliefs, and relationships. They may be objects or memories, but they are the actual record in real time of our true identities.
Who are you sitting next to at services today? Who would you never want to sit with? Which friends or family have you cut yourself off from, and who are friends your children hang out with? Where do you spend your time and where do you not? How do you spend your money? What books are gathering dust on your shelves and which volumes are threadbare from constant use? If you own a pair of Tefillin do you know where it is, and if so, is it a curio in your closet, worn but a single day in your life? What apps are on your phone, and what pictures in your wallet? When was the last time you volunteered to help the needy or came to make a minyan?
Yom Kippur is a day when we realize how our possessions, surroundings, and the way in which we spend our time reveal our relationship to the world. Do we like what we see? If we are completely honest, do the furnishings of our lives match what we say is most important to us?
Time is a curator taking inventory of all our adjacencies, both spatial and temporal. In life’s gallery of art, it is the totality of our physical existence which forms the collection we bequeath to others. Deciding next to whom you’ll be buried, that’s the easy part. The most important meaningful adjacency, however, is the one between life and death. The inevitable proximity of the hereafter and the herenow demands we think about what surrounds us in the present. Beyond the grave, memories are the only ligaments connecting us to the earthly existence of those who go the way of all flesh. These ligaments are the sum of all our adjacencies in this world — will the story they tell be meaningful? The decision is yours.