Repentance and Ted Kennedy

We are all about to be judged by the King of Kings, as “all inhabitants of the universe pass before Him like a flock of sheep.” That is both good news and bad news.

The good news is that our Sages teach that we are judged by the preponderance of our deeds. In Rambam’s words (Laws of Repentance, Chapter 2) “every human being has merits and demerits. If his good deeds outnumber his sins, then he is deemed righteous; if his sins outnumber his virtues, then he is deemed wicked.” In other words, majority good, we are meritorious; majority evil, we are guilty. By that calculation, most of us fare very well, because most people are casual sinners but basically good.

The bad news is that we are incapable of making these calculations, as Rambam continues: “There are some individual merits that outweigh even a multitude of sins, and some sins so heinous that they outweigh even a multitude of merits, and only the knowledge of the Knower of All can assess these individual acts.” Ouch.

The question that I have been pondering is: do we judge a person based on one or two atrocious acts ? Can they overshadow even a large number of good acts ? Are we defined by the one big thing, or by a host of small things ?

In truth, the recent death of Ted Kennedy started me thinking along these lines, because he is an excellent example of this conundrum. Obituaries always tend to glamorize and exaggerate a person’s virtues, and most of the tributes to him were glowing, even if they did acknowledge (sometimes in passing) the one bad deed. It was, as if, “even though, Chap-a-qui-dick, nevertheless, he was a great legislator, the liberal lion, etc.”

Let’s face it – he killed a woman (directly or indirectly), drove off a bridge (probably while intoxicated), ran past four houses at which he could have summoned help, made no timely effort to rescue her, didn’t report it to the authorities for ten hours, allegedly tried to get a friend to claim that the friend was really the driver, was allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor because of the peculiarities of Massachusetts politics, and re-elected seven times because of the peculiarities of Massachusetts voters. (And I omit some of the more lurid rumors associated with this episode.) The penance, we are told, was that he did not become president – as if he had some prior claim to the presidency because his brother had been president and had been killed, and a second brother had been killed while running for office.

And yet… By all accounts, he was a very decent person. People who knew him, privately, even political opponents, or strangers with whom he had casual encounters, reported that he was decent, humble, generous, kind and sensitive. Certainly his politics, not my cup of tea or bowl of chowder, represented the old-school noblesse oblige – that those of noble origin are obligated to help those less fortunate. He was a strident political partisan, to be sure, but was always personally gracious to staffers, underlings and others not of his social class – even assisting strangers who would only later realize that it was Ted Kennedy who had helped them.

So now G-d judges.

But our question is: can a person overcome the effects of even one hideous act through a multitude of good acts ? And the answer is, perhaps surprisingly so: yes. In this morning’s Torah portion, we read (Devarim 29) that the covenant was ratified, the sojourn in the wilderness was almost complete, and life in the holy land was about to begin – and only one thing could derail G-d’s plans for the Jewish people, the one weak link: “lest there be among you a man, woman, family or tribe whose heart will turn away from our G-d in order to go and serve the gods of the nations.” The heinous crime of idolatry – of ascribing divine powers to nature or the creations of our own hands – has the capacity to ruin everything. But then the Torah adds something else “lest there be among you a root flourishing with worm and gall wood,” a poison, a rot, a bacteria in the body politic of Israel. What does this add to the mix ? Idolatry stands by itself ?

There is no worse sin than idolatry; it destroys our whole reason for existence – but it is not the simple act of idolatry that the Torah  cautions against, but “a root flourishing with worm and gall wood.” The real measure of each person is whether evil has taken root, whether it is ingrained, habitual, a pattern of odious conduct – or it is aberrational, a bizarre exception to the person’s normal mode of conduct. That is the key. A person is defined by what he does consistently – what his personality is – and not by his momentary lapses.

There is a phrase for this in Hebrew – “ba’al” – meaning, “master of..”. “Ba’al” means that one is in control, one dominates a particular area. One can be a “Ba’al tzedaka” (defined as charitable), a “Ba’al chesed” (defined as kind), or conversely a “Ba’al lashon hara” (an habitual slanderer), a “Ba’al dibur” in shul (a persistent talker, who comes to shul only to socialize), the latter two in contradistinction to the occasional gossiper or the talker). Persistent patterns of conduct define the person, not the exceptions. Just like we are not judged by what we say during moments of great stress (Bava Batra 16b) – so too we are not judged ultimately by anomalies, but by the norms of our lives, to what we are dedicated, about what we are passionate, by our persistent patterns of conduct.

The flip side of this – and because of this principle – is that we are taught never to despair, never to feel that we have sinned so grievously that repentance is impossible or unwelcome, never to think that we are too far gone ever to return. Certainly every sin and every bad act has to be atoned for, but there are no obstacles to repentance. Man sins. But man is given the mitzva of repentance as well.

That is why Ted Kennedy could be, properly, rehabilitated (even if his politics remained irredeemable !) –  and that is why as we look at some of the miscreants of the past year who disgraced our world, we might wish to gaze a little more benignly, and recognize that there is a difference between the sinner and the “root flourishing with worm and gall wood”, that we too are in need of divine compassion and that the challenge is before us is not to gloat or condescend – but to cultivate good traits and deeds, to keep our aberrations to a bare minimum, and to uproot entrenched areas of rebellion – in our personal and family lives, professionally and spiritually, in our shul or community, so that we may be defined as “masters of good character and good deeds, of charity and kindness.”

And then we will merit life and all of G-d’s blessings, and soon behold the day when all will perceive us as a holy people, worthy of divine redemption.


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