The human condition presents us with a tremendous dilemma. We all sin and, as a result, suffer from the taint these sins cause. How can we regain human dignity? The Midrash chose a very unlikely exemplar to teach us the solution. King David is known as Israel’s idealized king, representing both past glory and the dream of future messianic restoration. He is equally well-known for an awful sin, his affair with Bathsheba, and for arranging the death of her husband, Uriah, to cover it up (2 Samuel 11:2-27). David’s sins were heinous, as the prophet, Nathan, made clear to him (2 Samuel 12). In the end David’s life was spared: “And David said to Nathan: ‘I stand guilty before the Lord.’ And Nathan replied to David: ‘The Lord has remitted your sin; you shall not die'” (12:13) (Source # 1).
In Psalm 51, David pleads with God for forgiveness over this episode: “Wash me thoroughly of my iniquity and purify me of my sin; for I recognize my transgressions, and am ever conscious of my sin. Against You [God] alone have I sinned and done what is evil in Your sight; so You are just in Your sentence and right in Your judgment” (51:4-6) (Source #2). David’s plaint offers the sinner a course of action to remedy his situation: acknowledgment of the sin, sincere confession and acceptance of God’s judgment. (The issue of the duty to make amends to the harmed party is dealt with by Maimonides in Source #3).
Midrash Tehillim (51:3) uses a parable to give this passage an even bolder reading: David is compared to a patient who came to a doctor with a broken limb. “What a terrible injury,” the doctor says, “I feel your pain.” The man replied: ‘Why does it bother you? I broke it for your sake, so that you could collect a fee.” This, the Midrash tells us, was David’s intent when he said: “For You, You alone, have I sinned.” I’m helping you, David tells God; if You forgive me after my grievous sin, I will be testimony that no sinner will have an excuse when You call on him to repent.” While the Rabbis were by no means naïve about the reason David sinned, it opted for a far-fetched interpretation to reinforce the importance and value of teshuva, repentance. (Source #4)
David becomes not only a paradigm for our future ideal leader; the Rabbis also make him the model penitent, a lesson many leaders today would do well to learn. The fact that God accepted David’s repentance even after his grievous sin indicates that the gates of repentance are always open. God cares for each of us. There is always hope for reconciliation.