It is a great honor to be with you today, not only because of presence of so many who are dedicated to serving our country, but the legacy of Senator Kennedy is so vast, including his life of service, his life as a father and as a mentor to many and because his legacy encompasses the major legislation that has bettered the lives of all Americans over the past fifty years. Long after we are gone, this building will remain as a lasting tribute to his great vision, a vision of a world redeemed through the grandest ideals of democracy and the personal relationships that undergird a healthy democracy.
How significant it is to be dedicating this institute at time in religious calendar of Jewish and Christian faiths, a holy time of renewal and rebirth as we anticipate the holidays of Easter and Passover.
As Jews prepare for the Passover holiday, we recall Moses, the Leader who redeemed our people from slavery. That story begins with a vision, when God called to Moses and instructed him to speak to Pharaoh, saying “Let My People Go.”
Moses was not only concerned with freedom from physical oppression. His vision demanded that the Children of Israel learn that freedom thrives in a structure of laws, laws that protect us and support us in becoming a community of our best selves. So Moses was also the Law-giver, who received the divine words on two tablets, written by the finger of God.
But laws cannot be etched in stone forever. Laws must live and breathe in the lives of every person and in every generation. Hundreds of years after Moses’ time, the Rabbis of the Talmudic age understood this. While the words Moses received contained the spirit of holiness, so did the process of questioning and argument that led to understanding and clarity.
Among the Rabbis who lived 2000 years ago, the schools of Hillel and Shammai disagreed on nearly every important point of law, having two diametrically opposed approaches. On one occasion, the two groups argued over a single ruling for three years, until finally the Holy One intervened and said that “both are the words of the living God,” but it’s time to make a decision. And yet, the Talmud explains that during those three years of debate, the two groups married between themselves, they shared meals together and generally behaved as one people. Though they disagreed on the law, they respected that each side of the argument was built on the spirit of holiness.
Senator Kennedy embodied this vision. He recognized that truth that can be found, not only in the holy words of the Constitution but even more so in conversation, even between adversaries. This is the aspiration of this Institute, to inculcate that vision of civil conversation and working together for the common good.
And we still have so far to go. When Moses took the people out of Egypt, they were bound, not only by physical bondage, but by humanity’s worst enemies: cynicism, ego, isolation, and fear.
How do we address these enemies of the human spirit? By building relationships. At the Passover seder, we open our homes to family, friends, and even strangers. We share food and stories and recommit ourselves to the values of freedom, justice, compassion, and faith.
That is the purpose for this gathering tonight—to share food and stories and to recommit ourselves, as a group of friends, colleagues and strangers who, like Senator Kennedy, believe in the ideals of American democracy. With this meal, we dedicate ourselves to the holiness that dwells in law and to the holiness of the conversation and debate that strengthens the law.
And so we pray:
May the Holy One bless this gathering, bringing us together to break bread and to share our stories.
May this gathering bring blessing to this institute, bringing Americans together to practice civility.
May this Institute bring blessing to this nation and strengthen its democracy.
And through these divine blessings may this nation bring blessing to the world,
We thank you God, Source of all that lives and breathes, source of wisdom and compassion, for this food, for these people, for this gathering.
Rabbi Barbara Penzner, Temple Hillel B’nai Torah, West Roxbury, MA