Our congregant, Marylou Brotherson, sent me an article written last week in the wake of Senator Edward Kennedy’s death, asking the same question. The author of the article quoted the poet John Berryman, in his "Sonnets for Chris" -- which was about an earlier act of adultery. Berryman asked "Is wickedness soluble in art?" What the poet wanted to know was whether he could be forgiven -- or redeemed -- for his act of immorality by striving for the artistic heights? Are we, in some way, able to get past our past, through our subsequent actions?
Let’s get it right out of the way: Edward Kennedy was a weak, flawed and, occasionally wicked human being. Yes, he cheated on a Harvard exam hoping to stay eligible for football. Yes, in his early days in the senate he was looked upon as a lightweight who got by on charm, a famous name and a great staff. Yes, his indiscretions and infidelities were, in part, the cause of his divorce. And yes, he closed down many a bar in Palm Beach and Cape Cod.
With all that said, we are now able to examine his good deeds.
Entering the Senate in 1962 at age 30, Senator Kennedy brought with him a storied name and virtually nothing else. Now, at his death some 47 years later, he leaves the Senate as one of the most effective senators of the past 100 years. He drafted and shaped some of the most significant legislation in the past century. Among the over 300 laws that never would have been enacted without Kennedy are:
- The 1964 Civil Rights Act
- The Voting Rights Act of 1965.
- Expanding voting to 18-year olds.
- The 1985 legislation that imposed sanctions on the apartheid government of South Africa.
- The 1988 bill that provided $1.2 billion for AIDS testing, treatment and research.
- The 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act.
- The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act.
- The Kennedy-Hatch Act of 1997, which provided health insurance for children.
- Heightened taxes on tobacco.
- The Kennedy-Kassebaum bill which made health insurance portable for workers.
- The "Patients' Bill of Rights" which he co-sponsored with John McCain
One wonders how, with all the loss, tragedy and foibles, Kennedy could have fought on for so many decades. What was it that made him get up each day and do the best he could to make this a better world? Was it an intense desire to tip the scales? Although no one can ever know for certain, this drive, according to one of his friends, has always been his defining quality.
Because of all he went through in his family, Ted Kennedy became what the great political writer Jack Newfield called "America's grief counselor." By way of example, Newfield noted that "when two planes were hijacked out of Boston's Logan Airport on 9/11 and 93 residents of Massachusetts went to their deaths; Senator Kennedy personally called more than 125 family members offering assistance and solace." One conversation with a grieving father so moved the senator that he sent the man a copy of a letter that his father, Ambassador Kennedy, had written to a friend in 1958 upon hearing of the death of the friend's son. That note, perhaps better than anything else, provides the key to what, when all is said and done, made Senator Ted Kennedy so utterly unique.
"When one of your loved one goes out of your life, you think of what he might have done for a few more years, and you wonder what you are going to do with the rest of yours. Then one day, because there is a world to be lived in, you find yourself a part of it, trying to accomplish something -- something he did not have time to do. And, perhaps, that is the reason for all. I hope so."
In the end, despite all his personal foibles and humiliations, his public losses and private tragedies, he has done well. He has done more than his share to help make this world a better place. There are those who would say that wickedness can never be soluble in good deeds; that “once a sinner always a sinner.” I will certainly not dismiss him because of what happened that one night in 1969 in a place called Chappaquiddick. Nor, will I release him from responsibility for his sins simply because he spent the better part of his life engaged in the act of overcoming loss, tragedy, and personal shortcomings. And, neither would Judaism.
Judaism’s answer to the question of whether we can escape our past is to reject any and every kind of fatalism that denies us the freedom to choose our way and to strike out in new directions. We are not enslaved by the impersonal laws of nature. God encourages and awaits our return. There is a wonderful Midrash that teaches “God said to Israel, "My children, Open the door of repentance as wide as the 'eye of a needle,' and I will expand it so wide that wagons and carriages can pass through." (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 24)
HERE IS THE KEY POINT: According to our tradition, great action, in and of itself, cannot redeem a person’s sins. The action must be directly linked and in response to the sin. Senator Edward Kennedy was a great man, a brilliant legislator, a tireless champion of those without a voice. The question of his redemption can only be answered by God and by those against whom he transgressed, and it is determined by his teshuvah.
The great composer Wagner’s virulent anti-Semitism is not mitigated by the brilliance of his musical compositions. O.J. Simpson’s talent on the football field does not outweigh or excuse his past sins.
Did Senator Edward Kennedy do the necessary teshuvah? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But, he or we need not be seen in the light of either/or. Human beings are not wholly sinful; nor are they completely pure. The great legacy of Judaism is to recognize that we are both. One does not erase the other.
The month of Elul and the subsequent High Holy Days bring us a reassuring message that we are not eternally bound by what we have been. We can throw off the oppression of enslaving habits. Our tomorrow can be freed from the shackles of yesterday. We can conquer the selfishness that shrinks us, the prejudice that blinds us, the envy that gnaws at us, and the greed that impels us. The verdict is still out on whether we can actually change human nature. However, it is human nature to change human actions, and that is what these days of teshuvah are all about.