At the end of this week’s haftarah, God promises the restored Israel, after its return from Babylonian exile, that its leader, David (or one of his progenies), would serve as “a leader (ed l’umim), a prince and a commander of peoples”. (NJPS – 55:4)
The word “ed” usually means “witness”, but in this case a different meaning seems in order. The above translation was likely based on the interpretation of Targum Yonatan, the Jewish Aramaic translation of the prophets, which translated “ed l’umim “ as “rav ammamaiya” – the leader of the people – interpreting this verse within its historical context, namely that a new leader would emerge for the returning community. This definition is also adopted by Rashi and would seem to be the interpretation most fitting to the context of the prophet’s message. Rabbi Joseph Kara, a younger contemporary of Rashi, offers a similar interpretation of this idiom. He asserts that “ed” means “commander” which in this case would mean a king. Others, though, see this prophecy as speaking about the end of time. Both Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra and Rabbi David Kimche identify “ed l’umim” with the Messiah who would herald the ultimate redemption.
The most provocative interpretation of this verse that I know of is found in a midrash which returns to defining the word “ed” as “witness”: “To whom can David be compared? To a man who broke a limb and went to see a doctor. The doctor was astonished at the injury and said: ‘What a terrible break! I really feel sorry for you.’ The man with the injury remarked: ‘What are you so sorry about, doc? Wasn’t my limb broken for your sake, since the fee for fixing it will be yours?’ The same is true of David, who said to the Holy One, blessed be He: ‘For your sake I have sinned (Psalm 51:6), for if You take me back, You will be able to say to sinners: ‘Why haven’t you repented?’ [And] all of the sinners will return to you for they will see me (David) and I will bear witness that You, indeed, accept back [even the most grievous sinners] who repent. This is what God means when He says: ‘Behold, I have made him (David) a witness to the nations (ed l’umim)” (Isaiah 55:4).” (adapted from Midrash Tehillim 51:3 Buber ed. p. 281)
This outrageous midrash makes the claim that David sinned (with Bathsheba) so that he might repent and be accepted in return by God, all for the purpose of bearing witness that repentance is truly possible. This extraordinary interpretation makes plain that the tradition wants everyone to know that no sinner should think that sin stands in the way of seeking and achieving repair. No one is beyond God’s concern. If it was possible for David, it is possible for all.