The Talmud is enquiring into David’s claim to piety in the Psalms – why should he be considered pious? (You have to love the audacity of this – can you imagine a rabbinic text nowadays posing such a question?)
One opinion is that he rose at midnight every night to praise God, or perhaps even that he stayed awake studying until midnight and then began his songs of praise. Study or prayer, already an unsteady ambivalence.
Another very interesting opinion is that his merit stems from the fact that he would quite literally get his hands dirty to legislate in matters of feminine ritual purity and render a woman permitted to her husband.
I love this – the emphasis on the fact that he strove to permit the married couple to resume or continue being intimate, that he didn’t just take the safe or easy option and tell them to wait another night or two. This teaches us a lot about the right spirit in which to approach the Law.
It gets better. Rabbi Yosi points out that David was often filled with doubt as to his worthiness, whether his part was with those of the righteous or whether God took a different view of him. He does this through a reading of psalm 27, which I think is spot on. That psalm really is a picture of a quick and sudden shift, the move from a strong sense of righteous grace to a mood of abandonment and despair, wherein the Divine is suddenly absent. I love the fact that Rabbi Yosi got this, it’s all too easy to read it 100 times through the month of Ellul and not see it at all.
What was the root of David’s worry? We are given the mysterious explanation, ‘Perhaps the sin will cause’. We’re not told what it will cause, or what the sin is, simply that the sin will cause. We must suppose that what it will cause will not be good.
Rashi – one of the Talmud’s earliest expositors – steps into the breach and unpacks the mystery. He reads that perhaps David will sin in the future, and that this future misconduct will bring him punishment and remove his lot from that of the righteous.
I don’t like this reading. Firstly, there’s no clear implication in the discussion that the sin will be in the future, that that is the source of uncertainty. Rashi, in reading this way, suggests that if there was sin, if David had already sinned, then he would indeed be unworthy, in some sense condemned. So for doubt to be there, there must be doubt about the presence of sin.
I read it differently. The Talmud brings other examples of people who were concerned with ‘maybe the sin will cause’. It suggests that it’s a theme that runs through religious life. And I think it is. Sin – a consciousness of our failings, however small – is an enduring concern for the religiously oriented sensibility. Rav Soloveitchik describes such awareness as an ‘anti-aesthetic experience’. And the big question, which the Talmud is putting into David’s mouth, is: ‘What is the impact of sin?’.
Does sin mean that we are tainted and corrupted, banished from the shadows of the Divine light, unable to dwell intimately with its presence? Must our guilt torment and hound us, continuously distancing us from the ideal image we hold of ourselves? Must our weakness tip us into a vicious cycle of depression and hopelessness?
The Talmud doesn’t give us an answer, it leaves us hanging with ‘maybe’.
It perhaps suggests that doubt is precisely the point here, that the uncertainty is the recurring theme. In doing so it proposes that this is a key dynamic of fear, that a lapse in our courage is often linked to a sense of our moral failing.
If we go back to David and the Psalms, we see many times that being in a state of sin does indeed distance a person from the purity of their ideals. This, however, is viewed as the stimulus to move closer once more to the Divine, not reason to abandon hope of connecting with it.
God is not seen as inaccessible to those of us who are less than perfect, but as very much a part of our rehabilitation, an aid in helping us to live with ourselves once more. As we say every evening, in the build up to the Shema: ‘For He is merciful, forgiving sin and not destroying, frequently and regularly overcoming His anger.’
‘Maybe the sin will cause.’ Maybe. But then again, maybe not.