By Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz
Everyone loves a love story. Unless you happen to be a prophet named Nathan and the love story involves a married woman named Bathsheba being pursued by a man named David who happens to be the king of Israel. This is not a boy-meets-girl romance! Though this story involves sin, it ends with the paradigmatic example of repentance and we have much to learn from this narrative.
After the sin had taken place and Nathan confronts David, David immediately admits his guilt. And rather than hide his actions in shame, David wrote a Psalm from which the entire world can learn about how to repent. According to Rabbi Jonah of Gerondi in his book about repentance (Shaarei Teshuva 1:23), this Psalm is the basic foundation for all principles of repentance. He even refers to it as The Chapter of Repentance. The Midrash Shocher Tov (4:4) says that those seeking to repent should take a close look at the actions of King David.
King David teaches us about man’s vulnerability and his desires, as well as his ability to soar to the heavens and redeem his sins through repentance. While sin is hidden, repentance, in the eyes of David, must not be clandestine; it should be public. When David is confronted by the prophet Nathan with rebuke (II Samuel 12), he responds with a single word: Chatati (חטאתי), ‘I have sinned.’ Psalm 51 is his public response. It begins with a glaring title with which David indicts himself right from the start: Nathan the prophet came to me after I had gone in to Bathsheba (verse 2). In verse 5, he declares that his sin is always with him while he begs the Lord to cleanse him of his iniquity. David is not satisfied with his own personal repentance but he declares that he will teach others the path towards repentance and atonement as well (verse 15). Though he erred, because of his commitment to return and to bring others closer to God, we continue to herald King David as the greatest king of Israel.
But what is David’s message for us? What can we learn about repentance from this Psalm?
As an experiment, I asked ChatGPT, the new artificial intelligence chatbot, what it thought of King David’s brand of repentance and what King David teaches us in this Psalm. Its answer sounds good but…can a computer program that can’t sin really understand repentance?
You, the human reader, will have to be the judge.
ME: Good morning, Chat GPT.
Chat GPT: Good morning, human.
ME: I want to hear your opinion on repentance as expressed by King David in Psalm 51. How should a person repent?
Chat GPT: Ideal repentance refers to a complete and sincere change of heart and behavior that results from acknowledging and regretting one’s wrongdoing. It involves a deep sense of humility and a recognition of one’s dependence on God’s grace and mercy.
In Psalm 51, King David reflects this ideal repentance as he confesses his sin and seeks forgiveness. In this psalm, David acknowledges his wrongdoing, recognizing that his sin is not just against other people but also against God. He pleads for God’s mercy, expressing his deep remorse and acknowledging his need for God’s help in overcoming his sin. The psalm is often considered one of the great expressions of penitence in religious literature, and is a vivid illustration of ideal repentance in action.
In the psalm, David says, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin” (Psalm 51:1-2). This demonstrates his humility and willingness to confess his wrongdoing, as well as his trust in God’s forgiveness and grace.
Overall, Psalm 51 reflects the key aspects of ideal repentance, including a deep sense of remorse, a willingness to confess one’s wrongdoing, and a recognition of one’s dependence on God’s grace. By examining this psalm, one can gain a deeper understanding of what it means to truly repent and turn away from sin.
The chatbot’s answer seems to cover all the bases and check all the right boxes. But it lacks one of the most important elements of repentance. It lacks the pain a true pennant feels when he realizes that he has moved farther away from God. A pain that David clearly feels when he cries out to God in the Psalm:
Have mercy upon me, O Hashem, as befits Your faithfulness; in keeping with Your abundant compassion, blot out my transgressions. Psalm 51:3
Implicit in repentance is the sin that initiated the process. Ironically, repentance brings you even closer to God than you were before the sin.
The sages teach that when Moses ascended to receive the Torah, the ministering angels said to God, “What is someone born of a woman doing among us?”
God said to them, “He has come to receive the Torah.”
The angels objected, saying, “The coveted treasure that was stored away by You for nine hundred and seventy-four generations before the world was created, You intend to give it to flesh and blood?! What is a mortal that he should receive such a treasure?”
God told Moses, “Give them an answer.”
Moses was afraid but God said to him: “Grasp hold of My Throne of Glory and give them an answer.”
Moses asked, “The Torah that we are receiving, what is written in it? ‘I am Hashem your God Who has taken you out of the Land of Egypt.’”
Moses said to the angels, “Did you descend to Egypt? Were you enslaved to Pharaoh? Why should the Torah be yours?”
“What else is written there? ‘There shall not be unto you the gods of others.’ Do you live among nations that worship idols? What else is written there? ‘Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it.’ Do you engage in labor from which you need to rest? Honor your father and mother.’ Do you have a father or a mother? ‘You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal.’ Is there envy among you? Is there an evil inclination among you?”
Immediately, the angels conceded.
This Midrash teaches us that one of the things that makes the Torah relevant to us is our ability to sin. This is a uniquely human experience that neither angels nor a chatbot can understand.
Part of being human is our ability to grow and, on the flipside, the ability to make mistakes. King David’s repentance in Psalm 51 is a powerful example of what it means to acknowledge one’s wrongdoing, seek forgiveness, and turn towards righteousness. David’s deep sense of remorse, humility, and trust in God’s mercy and grace serve as a model for all those seeking to make amends for their mistakes and begin anew.