Senator Kennedy’s passing is the end of an era. He was known as the “Liberal Lion” of the United States’ Senate. As a man, he was complex. On September 14, his autobiography will come out. According to excerpts, he frankly discusses the darkest moments of his life, and writes of his regrets. He was devastated by the tragic deaths of his brothers, and battled alcoholism. Senator Kennedy’s failings are well-known, and it serves no useful purpose to enumerate them. One of his worst episodes left a young woman dead. Kennedy was connected and powerful; had his misadventures been committed by a less prominent person, the consequences might have been worse.
But Kennedy changed. Most of us have not been given the advantages he was born with, and our temptations, and opportunity for bad behavior, have not been on the scale of an American aristocrat. Kennedy could have slunk off into oblivion, but he stayed in the public eye, and did good. Kennedy was on the right side of history, whether the issue was race, poverty, disability or any aspect of civil rights. A loyal Catholic, he challenged church teachings with which he did not agree. Life for many of us would have been far worse if it hadn’t been for the actions of this reformed man.
Reform, repentance, revolution--- all of these are charged terms. But like the word “salvation,” they have straightforward meanings. Reform and revolution mean simply a turning. Salvation means to make whole. Kennedy seems to have found both—he turned, he changed, and he became whole. He worked hard to make others whole. No one can ever know what inner demons Kennedy, or indeed anyone, faced or faces. Kennedy changed.
As we approach the Days of Awe, I find myself reflective, not just about Kennedy, but about myself. In Gates of Repentance, we read the wisdom of the rabbis, who remind us that the gates of prayer may not always be open, but the gates of repentance, or turning, are always open. I am ambivalent about prayer: a good God would not need to be cajoled to help people. Whatever God is, God either can’t, or won’t, intervene in human affairs. It’s up to us. At every moment we have the opportunity to turn, to change, to spark an inner revolution. We’re told that one hour of repentance and good deeds in this life is worth more than all the hours in the world to come. For one thing, we don’t know anything about the world to come, if there is one.
Senator Kennedy changed, and I find that hopeful and comforting. Change, repentance, reform--- these are all possible. We can aspire to one hour of repentance and good, and then, with practice, two hours. We work for the salvation, the survival, of ourselves, our species, our planet. Senator Kennedy, your memory is a blessing. May we find the strength for our own repentance, and may we work to help the underdog, as you did.