Did King David sin? (Shabbos 56)

One night, King David was having trouble sleeping.  He arose and went up to the roof for some fresh air.  From that vantage point, he could see the entire city.  He gazed about, and his attention was captured by the movements of a woman by the name of Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah.  He summoned her to his palace, where she spent the night.  A little while later, she sent word to the king that she was pregnant.

At that time, Uriah was fighting in the king’s army.  David called him back from the battlefield and encouraged him to be with his wife.  But Uriah refused to enjoy normal civilian life while his fellow soldiers were still fighting so fiercely.  And so David sent him back to the army and instructed the commanding officer to place Uriah on the frontlines, where he was killed.  Following Bathsheba’s mourning period, King David married her.

God was displeased with David’s behaviour and sent the Prophet Nathan to chastise the king.  He arrived at the palace, and told the king a story: There were once two men, one rich and one poor.  The rich man had everything, the poor man had only one small sheep.  One day, a wayfarer arrived at the home of the rich man.  Not wanting to part with any of his abundant wealth, he snatched the sheep of the poor man and prepared it for the visitor.

David heard the story and was incensed. ‘That man deserves to die!’ he declared.  Nathan listened to his angry words and then informed him that he was that man.  He prophesied grave punishment for David and his household.  David confessed his sins and repented.  Tragically, however, as Nathan had predicted, the baby was born but did not survive.  After that painful episode, God forgave David.  He and Bathsheba were blessed with a baby they called Shlomo.  He would grow up to become the greatest king of Israel.

אָמַר רַבִּי שְׁמוּאֵל בַּר נַחְמָנִי אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹנָתָן: כׇּל הָאוֹמֵר דָּוִד חָטָא אֵינוֹ אֶלָּא טוֹעֶה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״וַיְהִי דָּוִד לְכׇל דְּרָכָיו מַשְׂכִּיל וַה׳ עִמּוֹ וְגוֹ׳״. אֶפְשָׁר חֵטְא בָּא לְיָדוֹ וּשְׁכִינָה עִמּוֹ?! אֶלָּא מָה אֲנִי מְקַיֵּים ״מַדּוּעַ בָּזִיתָ אֶת דְּבַר ה׳ לַעֲשׂוֹת הָרַע״ — שֶׁבִּיקֵּשׁ לַעֲשׂוֹת וְלֹא עָשָׂה. אָמַר רַב: רַבִּי דְּאָתֵי מִדָּוִד מְהַפֵּךְ וְדָרֵישׁ בִּזְכוּתֵיהּ דְּדָוִד. ״מַדּוּעַ בָּזִיתָ אֶת דְּבַר ה׳ לַעֲשׂוֹת הָרַע״ — רַבִּי אוֹמֵר: מְשׁוּנָּה רָעָה זוֹ מִכׇּל רָעוֹת שֶׁבַּתּוֹרָה, שֶׁכָּל רָעוֹת שֶׁבַּתּוֹרָה כְּתִיב בְּהוּ ״וַיַּעַשׂ״, וְכָאן כְּתִיב ״לַעֲשׂוֹת״ — שֶׁבִּיקֵּשׁ לַעֲשׂוֹת וְלֹא עָשָׂה. ״אֵת אוּרִיָּה הַחִתִּי הִכִּיתָ בַחֶרֶב״ — שֶׁהָיָה לְךָ לְדוּנוֹ בְּסַנְהֶדְרִין וְלֹא דַּנְתָּ. ״וְאֶת אִשְׁתּוֹ לָקַחְתָּ לְּךָ לְאִשָּׁה״ — לִיקּוּחִין יֵשׁ לְךָ בָּהּ. דְּאָמַר רַבִּי שְׁמוּאֵל בַּר נַחְמָנִי אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹנָתָן: כׇּל הַיּוֹצֵא לְמִלְחֶמֶת בֵּית דָּוִד, כּוֹתֵב גֵּט כְּרִיתוּת לְאִשְׁתּוֹ. ״וְאֹתוֹ הָרַגְתָּ בְּחֶרֶב בְּנֵי עַמּוֹן״ — מַה חֶרֶב בְּנֵי עַמּוֹן אִי אַתָּה נֶעֱנָשׁ עָלָיו, אַף אוּרִיָּה הַחִתִּי אִי אַתָּה נֶעֱנָשׁ עָלָיו. מַאי טַעְמָא — מוֹרֵד בַּמַּלְכוּת הֲוָה. דַּאֲמַר לֵיהּ: ״וַאדֹנִי יוֹאָב וְעַבְדֵי אֲדֹנִי עַל פְּנֵי הַשָּׂדֶה חֹנִים״. אָמַר רַב: כִּי מְעַיְּינַתְּ בֵּיהּ בְּדָוִד לָא מַשְׁכַּחַתְּ בֵּיהּ בַּר מִדְּאוּרִיָּה, דִּכְתִיב: ״רַק בִּדְבַר אוּרִיָּה הַחִתִּי״.
אָמַר רַב: אֵין לְךָ גָּדוֹל בְּבַעֲלֵי תְּשׁוּבָה יוֹתֵר מִיֹּאשִׁיָּהוּ בְּדוֹרוֹ וְאֶחָד בְּדוֹרֵנוּ. וּמַנּוּ? אַבָּא אֲבוּהּ דְּרַבִּי יִרְמְיָה בַּר אַבָּא. וְאָמְרִי לַהּ אַחָא אֲחוּהּ דְּאַבָּא אֲבוּהּ דְּרַב יִרְמְיָה בַּר אַבָּא. דְּאָמַר מָר: רַבִּי אַבָּא וְאַחָא אַחֵי הֲווֹ.

Rabbi Shmuel bar Nacḥmani quoted Rabbi Yonatan: Anyone who says that David sinned is nothing other than mistaken, as it is stated: “And David succeeded in all his ways; and the Lord was with him”. Is it possible that sin came to his hand and nevertheless the Divine Presence was with him? However, how then do I establish the meaning of the rebuke of the prophet Nathan: “Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do that which is evil? David sought to do bad, but did not do so. Rav said: Rebbe, who descends from David, seeks to teach in favor of David. With regard to that which is written: “Why have you despised the commandment of the Lord to do evil,” Rebbe said: This evil is different from all other evils in the Torah; as with regard to all other evils in the Torah, it is written: And he did evil, and here it is written: To do evil, suggesting David sought to do evil but did not actually do so. That which is written: “Uriah the Hittite you have smitten with the sword,” means that you could have judged him before the Sanhedrin as one guilty of treason against the throne, and you did not judge him in that manner. With regard to that which is written: “And his wife you have taken to be your wife”; it means that you have rights of marriage with her, as by law Bathsheba was already divorced from Uriah. As Rabbi Shmuel bar Nacḥmani quoted Rabbi Yonatan: Anyone who goes to a war waged by the royal house of David writes a bill of divorce to his wife (to prevent a situation in which the soldier’s wife would be unable to remarry because he did not return from battle and there were no witnesses to his fate). With regard to that which is written: “And him you have slain with the sword of the children of Ammon,” it means: Just as you are not punished for soldiers killed by the sword of the children of Ammon in the course of the war, so too you are not punished for the death of Uriah the Hittite. What is the reason that David was not liable for the death of Uriah? Because Uriah was a traitor against the throne. As he said to David: “And my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are encamped in the open fields”. (In the presence of the king, it is treasonous to refer to another person as his lord). Rav said: Indeed, when you analyze David, no questionable conduct is found in him, except for that involving Uriah. As it is written: “(David did that which was right in the eyes of the Lord, and turned not aside from anything that He commanded him all the days of his life) save only in the matter of Uriah the Hittite”. Rav said: There is no greater penitent than Josiah in his generation, and one in our generation. And who is he? Abba (Father), the father of Rabbi Yirmeya bar Abba, and some say it is Acḥa (Brother), the brother of Abba, father of Rabbi Yirmeya bar Abba, as the master said: Rabbi Abba and Acḥa were brothers.

Rabbi Shmuel reminds us that there is so much more to King David’s story than meets the eye.  Anyone who judges his actions without knowing the whole story is making a terrible error.  And that includes each and every one of us living centuries and millennia later.  The Torah is not a history book; it is a guide to life.  If it were a history book, it would be important to include all the details of every story.  In the case of this particular narrative, the lesson, explains Rav Dessler, is one of repentance and God’s forgiveness.  As such, the Tanach includes all the details that accentuate King David’s mistake, thereby allowing us to fully appreciate his remorse and teshuvah.

Rabbi Nosson Scherman points out that, as the king, David had the power to limit the Tanach’s condemnation of his conduct.  But that would have defeated the purpose.  Instead, David knew that an integral element of his atonement would be the recording of his actions magnifying the impropriety of his behaviour, absent any mitigating factors.  Including the entire context and background would have diluted the event’s effects on our appreciation for the power of teshuvah.  Now, when we read the story, we are inspired by God’s readiness to forgive us for even the most terrible mistakes in life.

Nevertheless, whether an individual is alive or not, when we hear something unfavourable concerning their behaviour, we are obligated to disbelieve the report or seek mitigating factors for their actions.  We may never judge another until we are in their shoes.  In most cases, it is near impossible to ever find oneself in the shoes of another – particularly a king who lived in ancient times – and so, we must find ways to judge them favourably.

If you judge others favourably, God will judge you favourably.  If you pass judgement upon others at face value, God will act likewise with you.  The more you overcome the natural tendency to judge others at face value, the more God will judge you favourably.  That’s why our Sages were willing to take on the most difficult cases in the Tanach and find ways to ameliorate the circumstances.  Each rabbi seeks to outdo his colleague in providing a contextual narrative for King David’s behaviour.

In fact, our Sages seem to suggest that the Tanach has two objectives for recording the story of David and Bathsheba.  The first is to teach us about the power of teshuvah.  The second is to test our ability to judge others favourably, despite seeing certain facts before our eyes.  We have to train ourselves to think like defense attorneys.  A good defense attorney is able to see every situation from a hundred different angles.  Unfortunately, too many people love acting for the prosecution and automatically assume that the person standing before them is guilty until proven innocent.

Ultimately, the Gemara declares that the only time David may have sinned was an occasion that he listened to lashon hara, implying that believing reports about another’s misconduct is even worse than his conduct with Bathsheba.  The Gemara then concludes with the story of two contemporary rabbis who sinned and repented.  What was their sin?  The Gemara doesn’t tell us.  The point is that it doesn’t matter.  What matters is that they repented.  Sadly, many people only pay attention to David’s error, and gloss over the primary objective of the story, his repentance and God’s forgiveness.

Who were these rabbis who erred and repented?  Someone’s father.  Someone’s brother.  Undoubtedly, they had real names.  But the Gemara wants us to know that nobody’s perfect.  People are quick to judge authority figures but forget that they’re human too.  King David was also a father.  He was also a brother, a husband, a son, and a grandson.  When his name was dragged through the mud by the media of the day, he wasn’t the only one who suffered.  His family was also humiliated by onlookers who were quick to judge.  When his wife dropped the kids off at school, what had she done to earn the disapproving glances of the other mums?  What did his other children do to be teased in the schoolyard?  Every time you are tempted to be quick to judgement and engage in gossip, think about how many innocent individuals you may be harming.

The story of King David is a stark reminder of the importance of the Oral Torah to our tradition.  Without the talmudic discussion, we would have a completely skewed view of one of our greatest leaders of all time.  May you always judge others favourably and earn a reputation as an outstanding defense attorney!

About the Author
Rabbi of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, London, UK.
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