He’d be shocked that I still remember him. He’d be pleased that I care. He’d be tickled pink – yes, I think he’d laugh out loud – to know that his memory moves me. The truth is that his tragic and too early death still haunts me. And the blessing is that his teachings have stuck with me all these many years later.
He was my teacher in 8th grade – that’s some 25+ years ago. I believe I never saw him again – maybe once during high school. I hadn’t thought about him either – “one generation passes away, and another generation comes: but the earth abides forever.” (1:4) Until that day, in January 2012, when a friend reached out and told me of the tragedy and asked me to officiate Peter’s funeral. What would he think, I wondered, to know that a student who passed notes in his class and barely paid attention (it was 8th grade, after all), was a rabbi escorting him to his final resting place?
“Vanity of vanities…vanity of vanities: all is vaaaaaaaanity.” (1:1) Yes! That’s what he would think. How absurd that he had died. How crazy that his life had ended. How tragic. How final. How nothingness of nothingness.
But then he’d remember: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die.” (3:1-2) And so he’d realize that his time had come – too quickly, too early – but that there was no sense trying to understand it. There’s life, there’s death, and there’s something in between. Peter lived it – he dramatized it, he enjoyed it, he made it larger than life (and he was larger than life). And then it ended.
And to his grave he would take the words that he taught us and we’d have no better understanding of it, only to live it and make it our own: “Whatever it is in your power to do, do it with all of your might.” (9:10) Live! Learn! Love!
I don’t know much about his personal life; only what I uncovered at the time of his funeral and, more recently, through memories posted by his friends (and especially his theater buddies) on Facebook. So this isn’t as much about Peter as it is about me and all of those he left behind.
After all, he was my teacher for just one year of my life. He had a whole lot more students and I’ve had a whole lot more teachers!
And after all, his was just one of the many funerals I officiated that year. I’ve written eulogies for people I knew much better.
But Peter was my teacher. And I his student. And then Peter was the “met” – the deceased – and I his rabbi. And since Peter didn’t have any children or a spouse, and his parents were deceased, we all became the mourners and I (along with other friends and extended family) became eternally linked – to the date of his death, to the moments of his life, and to the man himself.
Peter was a teacher and an actor. His gifts were those of transmission – sharing a text, interpreting a story, bringing life to characters. Teaching Jewish biblical stories and acting out Shakespearian tragedies have so many similarities, and Peter found them. His gift to the world was one of life, drama, and beauty.
His yahrzeit (anniversary of death) just ended and I recited kaddish, the Jewish memorial prayer for the deceased, at each service. I struggle to understand why Peter’s death still impacts me so much and I think it is because of this beautiful text of Kohelet (Ecclesiates) that he taught his students and that is quoted throughout.
Our rabbis have taught, “Set yourself up with a teacher and you will acquire a friend” (Pirkei Avot 1:6). Peter was a teacher and a friend to so many, and the impact of his life lives on in each of us.
The book of Kohelet ends: “The end of the matter, when all is said and done: Fear God, and keep God’s commandments – for that is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.” (12:13-14) And then, because we don’t want to end the reading on a sour note of evil, we repeat verse 13: “The end of the matter, when all is said and done: Fear God, and keep God’s commandments – for that is the whole duty of man.”
I can’t help but wonder if that is what draws me to remember Peter: his legacy to his students, in a world where everything is “vanity” and “nothingness”, where “it is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting” (7:2), is that we should walk on God’s path, forging a relationship with God, with our teachers, and with each other.
His memory continues to be a blessing and an inspiration.
(all verses quoted are references to Kohelet/Ecclesiastes)