Delivered by Rabbi Ben Weiner, November 29 2018, at conclusion of Shloshim at JCA
This is the second time I’ve had the opportunity to share words on the subject of my congregant, and beloved friend, Hanna bat Shlomo, Jane Trigere. The first was a month ago, at her funeral in Northampton, as we stood beside the open grave and prepared ourselves for the sad task of laying her body to rest. Much of what I said then is still fitting to be shared today. We are here today, too, to honor and remember her. We are still here to hold her mourners in our embrace in the midst of their deep sorrow. We still reach out to console her beloved husband Ken, and to share our condolences with her children and stepchildren, Shatay and her husband Matt, Rachel Cassia, Seth, and Becca and her husband Matt. Likewise, our sympathies are still offered to her grandchildren: Emmet, Shunie, Skaya, and Leah, and also to her brother, Ed, and her sister, Lainie. If anything, today we widen the compass of our sympathies, both to include those of Jane’s friends and family that may not have been with us a month ago, and also to affirm the deepening sorrow of those who have now had to go through the experience of living one month without her.
Speaking on that day, I used the architecture of her precious website as a kind of template for discussing Jane’s myriad accomplishments–how she was an artistic “Jane of all trades”, to borrow Ken’s phrase; how she cherished her roles as an ima and an omi; how she reclaimed her Jewish patrimony; how she facilitated community and devoted herself to the preservation of history in artifact and story.
I marveled at the simply amazing relationship she shared with Ken, citing a verse from the prophet Isaiah that was read as haftarah on the Shabbat of their wedding week to celebrate the foundation they discovered in each other and the beauty their partnership brought into the world: oniya sokhara lo nukhamah. “O thou afflicted, tossed with tempest, and not comforted, behold, I will set thy stones in fair colors, and lay thy foundations with sapphires.”
I spoke gently about the adversities she overcame in her life–how her inner strength, pushing through her wounds and filtering through her mind and her senses, issued into the world as her boundless creativity, and how her most profound creation of all was herself.
I talked of the dignity and courage with which she “negotiated” her illness. I shared deeply in the general sadness at the premature departure of such a radiant soul, and concluded with the words of her favorite Little Prince that Ken and I had chosen the night before: “In one of those stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night. And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content that you have known me.”
I also happened to mention that the clearest directive Jane gave me, as we discussed how I would officiate her memorial events, was that she didn’t want anybody to be bored. So, while I’m honored that my eulogy for her will be entered into her digital archives, I feel I can only respect her wishes today by trying a different approach.
In any case, there is a palpable difference between a funeral and a shloshim–the observance of the thirtieth day following a death that we are engaged in today. At a funeral, we are overwhelmed by grievous loss and preoccupied with a wrenching and savage act of letting go–committing a lifeless body to the dust from which it came. At a shloshim, though still haunted by this grief, we begin to turn our hearts toward the living work of preserving and remembering–of asking ourselves: how will this beloved being we have lost live on among us?
Jewish tradition hints at an answer to this question through the custom of marking a shloshim by learning Torah in honor and memory of the deceased, as if to say: a good Jew lives on through the Torah she propagates in this world.
Hanna bat Shlomo was a very good Jew. In fact, she was always on me to offer more opportunities for studying parashat hashavua–the weekly Torah portion–in community. What I want to do today is in part a kind of tikkun–repair or repentance–for my failures to do so to her satisfaction. But, even more, what I want is to invoke her spirit in this special way, not just through any old Torah, but specifically by sharing hers.
Jane herself once took a stab at describing the art of studying Torah. “Why a d’var Torah?” she asked, questioning rhetorically the very premise of delving into the text to establish new resonances of meaning. She then proposed a personal answer that brimmed with the enthusiasm of someone who had come into possession of this practice as a thirsting adult. “If our Bible were simply a history book,” she said, “then one reading would be sufficient. There may be some history telling, but also memoir, short stories, law and poetry. It’s all about interpretation! We are in dialogue. Author and Reader. God and humankind. And this is why I am here today to offer some insights…but also lots of questions.”
Her most accomplished d’var Torah wasn’t given in words at all, but in painted fabric. This was the “Wimpel for Isaac” that you have the opportunity to behold and interpret for yourselves today, a brilliant and playful interpolation of biblical storytelling with Jewish material culture that radically shifts our understanding of a well-worn tale, the Akedah–the Binding of Isaac–through a novel and inspired close reading. It even managed to recast the very Old Testament countenance of her dear husband as the visage of the blind old patriarch.
But Jane did use her words for this purpose, as well, as you can also find on her website, under the heading “Written Word: Midrash and Divrei Torah.” This is where I found her little explanatory passage that I’ve already quoted to you, which served as the preface to one of the three teachings she offered to the JCA last year, not coincidentally while I was away on sabbatical and there were more such opportunities available to the laity.
For that same reason, I’ve only really come to know them in recent days. They are not so much rigid and compact speeches, in service of a particular agenda, as meandering strolls over the landscape of the text, as if it were a French garden. They give evidence of how her mind hovered over the material, from flower to flower, probing for insight and curiosities as a bee seeks nectar.
On Shavuot, when we read the description of the giving of Torah at Mt. Sinai, in a passage rich in sensory detail, she mused upon the senses themselves as conduits of experience and divine connection, devoting particular time to the faculty of smell. “How does one smell things?” she asked. “What actually enters into one’s nose? When it comes to touch or taste, the object itself comes into contact with the sensors. With sight, only light hits the retina; with hearing, only sound waves hit the eardrum. And smell? The tiniest molecules of, say, roasted meat enter into one’s nostrils. The object could be quite a few feet away, yet the smallest bits of this object do indeed enter the nose upon smelling. It is not full direct interaction, but it is not zero interaction either.”
Perhaps by reason of this mystery–that the perception of aroma was a form of impalpably touching an object that was not precisely there–smell, she said “was the loftiest & most transcendent sense.” She associated it with the breath of life that God caused to enter into the nostrils of Adam, and also lingered upon the image of the High Priest making the special “Ketoret incense offering of Yom Kippur.”
“On Yom Kippur,” she wrote, “the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies …(nose first, mind you)…with a pan of smoldering coals in his right hand, and a ladle filled with ketoret in his left; there, he would scoop the ketoret into his hands, place it over the coals, wait for the chamber to fill with the fragrant smoke of the burning incense, and swiftly back out of the room.” Then, considering the topic exhausted for the moment, she added, “enough about smell”, and moved on.
Earlier in the year, she had offered a teaching on parsahat B’sha’lach, which described the final departure of the Israelite slaves from the land of Egypt. She called it “A Journey with Joseph’s Bones.” As the title suggests, she paid special attention to the fact that, even in the haste of their exodus, the people fulfilled their promise to their ancestor Joseph, carrying his remains with them through the wilderness and into the promised land. According to tradition, she noted, they did so in a kind of ark, an aron, that would eventually stand parallel to the one that carried the ‘tablets of the law.’
“What does Joseph’s aron represent to these people?” she asked. “What does Joseph represent?” She answered her question with an astonishing insight, observing that while the God of Israel clearly did not have much confidence in the people’s capacity to fulfill their commitments to Him, Joseph felt otherwise. “God does not trust them” she wrote, “but Joseph did…Joseph did not ask his brothers, nor God, to be immediately taken back home for burial…Joseph left this task to the later generations…[and] they are loyal to the man who trusted them to fulfill a pledge.”
Finally, I was struck by Jane’s commentary on parashat Terumah, a section of Torah that can really only be fully appreciated by an artist, maybe especially one who worked in textiles. But, in addition, to the lavish description of the materials and techniques that went into the building of the mishkan, the wilderness tabernacle, she was preoccupied with the very nature of this impermanent sanctuary tent.
“Tent dwellers are always moving,” she said, “always taking down their tents and setting them back up. Change was the constant… Consider the alternative: King Solomon built the first Temple. It certainly was meant to be permanent…so was the second temple. Yet when these structures were destroyed by enemies it was a cataclysm. When the permanent is torn down it means defeat, subjugation and exile.”
She also paid attention to the object at the heart of the mishkan–the other aron, the one that contained the tablets within, and upon it the figures of the cherubim, which she described as “winged beings with human faces that sit on the [top of the ark] facing each other with extended wings forming a protective throne or sheltering embrace.” For her, this was a highly evocative image. At the center of the holy place was not the presence of the divine so much as a void, an empty space created and honored by two beings facing each other in relationship, with the potential to be filled by memory and revelation.
It is good, and maybe even comforting, to commune with Jane in this way, as custom suggests we should at shloshim, by hearing her voice echoing through words of Torah. And while this recollection will no doubt point us back in the direction of our sadness and grief, I experience it also as offering us a way forward, as providing encouragement as we begin to turn our hearts toward the living work of preserving and remembering–of asking ourselves: how will this beloved being we have lost live on among us?
Because we, too, are imperfect Israelites striving to honor our commitment to carry the essence of our departed with us through the wilderness.
We, too, are the High Priest, standing in a sanctuary full of fragrance and aroma, impalpably grasping at the particles of something that is here and not here: the “Jane of all trades”, the ima and the omi, the ship tossed by tempest that found a port of sapphires, the good Jew whose Torah will be propagated here among us in this world, and, god willing, in the world to come, the royal child from a faraway land who is laughing with the stars.
Today, we are all cherubim with our wings outstretched, joined to each other by the emptiness we share, seeking to fill it with memory and revelation, and praying: yehei nishmata tsrura b’tsror hayim. May the spirit of Jane Trigere, Hanna bat Shlomo, remain bound up in the bonds of life.