King David – A Model for Teshuva?

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.


(יג) וַיֹּ֤אמֶר דָּוִד֙ אֶל־נָתָ֔ן חָטָ֖אתִי לַֽיהוָ֑ה (ס) וַיֹּ֨אמֶר נָתָ֜ן אֶל־דָּוִ֗ד גַּם־יְהוָ֛ה הֶעֱבִ֥יר חַטָּאתְךָ֖ לֹ֥א תָמֽוּת׃
(13) 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.


  1. What is important about David's behavior as a model for us when we sin?


(ד) הרבה [הֶ֭רֶב] כַּבְּסֵ֣נִי מֵעֲוֺנִ֑י וּֽמֵחַטָּאתִ֥י טַהֲרֵֽנִי׃ (ה) כִּֽי־פְ֭שָׁעַי אֲנִ֣י אֵדָ֑ע וְחַטָּאתִ֖י נֶגְדִּ֣י תָמִֽיד׃ (ו) לְךָ֤ לְבַדְּךָ֨ ׀ חָטָאתִי֮ וְהָרַ֥ע בְּעֵינֶ֗יךָ עָ֫שִׂ֥יתִי לְ֭מַעַן תִּצְדַּ֥ק בְּדָבְרֶ֗ךָ תִּזְכֶּ֥ה בְשָׁפְטֶֽךָ׃

(4) Wash me thoroughly of my iniquity, and purify me of my sin; (5) for I recognize my transgressions, and am ever conscious of my sin. (6) Against You alone have I sinned, and done what is evil in Your sight; so You are just in Your sentence, and right in Your judgment.


  1. According to these verses, what did David do to gain God's forgiveness?
  2. What seems to be the plain meaning (p'shat) of the verse in bold print?


(ט) אֵין הַתְּשׁוּבָה וְלֹא יוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים מְכַפְּרִין אֶלָּא עַל עֲבֵרוֹת שֶׁבֵּין אָדָם לַמָּקוֹם כְּגוֹן מִי שֶׁאָכַל דָּבָר אָסוּר אוֹ בָּעַל בְּעִילָה אֲסוּרָה וְכַיּוֹצֵא בָּהֶן. אֲבָל עֲבֵרוֹת שֶׁבֵּין אָדָם לַחֲבֵרוֹ כְּגוֹן הַחוֹבֵל אֶת חֲבֵרוֹ אוֹ הַמְקַלֵּל חֲבֵרוֹ אוֹ גּוֹזְלוֹ וְכַיּוֹצֵא בָּהֶן אֵינוֹ נִמְחַל לוֹ לְעוֹלָם עַד שֶׁיִּתֵּן לַחֲבֵרוֹ מַה שֶּׁהוּא חַיָּב לוֹ וִירַצֵּהוּ. אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁהֶחֱזִיר לוֹ מָמוֹן שֶׁהוּא חַיָּב לוֹ צָרִיךְ לְרַצּוֹתוֹ וְלִשְׁאל מִמֶּנּוּ שֶׁיִּמְחל לוֹ. אֲפִלּוּ לֹא הִקְנִיט אֶת חֲבֵרוֹ אֶלָּא בִּדְבָרִים צָרִיךְ לְפַיְּסוֹ וְלִפְגֹּעַ בּוֹ עַד שֶׁיִּמְחל לוֹ. לֹא רָצָה חֲבֵרוֹ לִמְחל לוֹ מֵבִיא לוֹ שׁוּרָה שֶׁל שְׁלֹשָׁה בְּנֵי אָדָם מֵרֵעָיו וּפוֹגְעִין בּוֹ וּמְבַקְּשִׁין מִמֶּנּוּ. לֹא נִתְרַצָּה לָהֶן מֵבִיא לוֹ שְׁנִיָּה וּשְׁלִישִׁית. לֹא רָצָה מְנִיחוֹ וְהוֹלֵךְ לוֹ וְזֶה שֶׁלֹּא מָחַל הוּא הַחוֹטֵא. וְאִם הָיָה רַבּוֹ הוֹלֵךְ וּבָא אֲפִלּוּ אֶלֶף פְּעָמִים עַד שֶׁיִּמְחל לוֹ:

(יא) הַחוֹטֵא לַחֲבֵרוֹ וּמֵת חֲבֵרוֹ קֹדֶם שֶׁיְּבַקֵּשׁ מְחִילָה מֵבִיא עֲשָׂרָה בְּנֵי אָדָם וּמַעֲמִידָן עַל קִבְרוֹ וְיֹאמַר בִּפְנֵיהֶם חָטָאתִי לַה' אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְלִפְלוֹנִי זֶה שֶׁכָּךְ וְכָךְ עָשִׂיתִי לוֹ. וְאִם הָיָה חַיָּב לוֹ מָמוֹן יַחֲזִירוֹ לַיּוֹרְשִׁים. לֹא הָיָה יוֹדֵעַ לוֹ יוֹרְשִׁין יַנִּיחֶנּוּ בְּבֵית דִּין וְיִתְוַדֶּה:

(9) Neither repentance nor the Day of Atonement atone for any save for sins committed between man and God, for instance, one who ate forbidden food, or had forbidden coition and the like; but sins between man and man, for instance, one injures his neighbor, or curses his neighbor or plunders him, or offends him in like matters, is ever not absolved unless he makes restitution of what he owes and begs the forgiveness of his neighbor. And, although he make restitution of the monetory debt, he is obliged to pacify him and to beg his forgiveness. Even he offended not his neighbor in aught save in words, he is obliged to appease him and implore him till he be forgiven by him. If his neighbor refuses a committee of three friends to forgive him, he should bring to implore and beg of him; if he still refuses he should bring a second, even a third committee, and if he remains obstinate, he may leave him to himself and pass on, for the sin then rests upon him who refuses forgiveness. But if it happened to be his master, he should go and come to him for forgiveness even a thousand times till he does forgive him.10Ibid. 85b; Baba Kamma, 92a; Yoma, 87b. C.

(11) One who committed a sin against a friend, and the friend died before he asked his forgiveness, should bring ten adults at his grave and there say: "I have sinned against the Lord God of Israel and against this man (naming him), and I have done against him thus and such (naming the sins). If he was indebted to him he should return the money to the heirs; if he knew not of his heirs he should leave the amount with the tribunal, whenafter his confession should be delivered.12Yoma, 86a; Baba Kamma, 103a. C.


  1. What element does Maimonides add to the process of doing teshuva which seems absent from the text of the Psalm?


(ג) לך לבדך חטאתי למען תצדק בדברך. למה היה דוד דומה. למי שנשבר ובא לו אצל הרופא. והיה הרופא מתמה ואומר לו מה גדולה מכתך צר לי עליך מאד. אמר לו אותו שנשבר אתה צר לך עלי לא בשבילי נשברתי אלא בשביל השכר שלך. כך אמר להקב"ה לך לבדך חטאתי. כשאתה אומר לפושעים למה לא עשיתם תשובה. אם תקבלני כל הפושעים משלימים לך ומסתכלין בי ואני העד ומעיד לכל באי העולם שאתה מקבל השבים. וכן הקדוש ברוך הוא אומר לו (ישעיה נה ד) עד לאומים נתתיו. ולא אני בלבד אלא כל ישראל. וכן הוא אומר (שם מג י) אתם עדי נאם ה' ועבדי אשר בחרתי:

"For You, You alone, have I sinned . . . That You may be justified when You speak" (Ps. 51:6). To whom may David be compared? To a man who broke a limb, and came to a doctor. The doctor marveled and said: "How great is thy break! I am much distressed on your account." The man with the broken limb said: "Art you distressed on my account? Was not my limb broken for your sake, since the fee is to be yours?" Just so David said to the Holy One, blessed be He: For You, You only, have I sinned: If You receive me, then if You say to transgressors "Why haven't you repented?" all transgressors will submit to You, for all of them will behold me [David], and I shall surely bear witness that You receive the penitent. Hence the Holy One, blessed be He, said: Behold, I have given him [David] for a witness to the peoples (Isa. 55:4). And God gave as a witness not only me, David, but all Israel, since it is said You are My witnesses, said the Lord, and My servant whom 1 have chosen (Isaiah 43:10).


  1. How has this midrash redefined the meaning of the verse in bold print.
  2. Why do you think the sages were willing to read this verse in such a surprising way?
  3. What new role do they assign to David and why?