Read this article alongside the related piece, The Female Component to High Holidays Repentance for All. Originally published in Hebrew.
The Book of Zohar sees King David as “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” – the archetypal sinner, the court jester, and eventually, also the partner of Teshuva herself. In Psalms 130, King David says:
Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
to my cry for mercy.
If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
so that we can, with reverence, serve you.
I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
and in his word I put my hope.
I wait for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
Yea, more than watchmen wait for the morning.
Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
for with the Lord is unfailing love
and with him is full redemption.
He himself will redeem Israel
from all its sins.
This psalm begins with calling to God out of the depth, continues with asking God’s forgiveness, ends with yearning and anticipation that grow out of God’s absolution, and reaches the point of redemption and salvation. In David’s crisis poetry there are hidden words of praise to God, and as in other psalms, his ability to turn his supplications into poetry and to converse with his soul so bound up with the divine soul is outstanding.
According to King David, forgiveness is possible only when we are “with God,” and the mercy and redemption are in Him and “with Him,” and therefore are in us, when we are attached to Him. The space that enables us to undergo the process of “making teshuva” is created, and we are able to “return to the place” which is our origin and the root of our soul.
King David is not only a great poet, but also the archetypal sinner who, according to our Sages, was born to set up “the yoke of repentance.” The Sages deal a lot with David’s sins, justify him, and even declare radically: “Whoever says that David sinned is merely erring” (BT Shabbat 56a).
At one point, a scene is described in which David enters the Beit Midrash during a dispute about the world to come, the scholars taunt him about Batsheva, and he reproaches them about a flaw in their morality:
…when they are engaged in studying the four deaths inflicted by beit din, they interrupt their studies and taunt me [saying], “David, what is the death penalty for he who seduces a married woman?” I reply to them, “He who commits adultery with a married woman is executed by strangulation, yet he has a portion in the world to come. But he who publicly puts his neighbor to shame has no portion in the world to come.” (BT Sanhedrin 107a)
It is evident that our sages were deeply engaged with questions of evil inclination, reward and punishment, and mostly, they identified with King David’s image. This colorful hero – the fighter, the fallen, the worldly, the dancer, the poet – seems to them the most likely to repent, and to be fully pardoned either by men or by God. In fact, it might be said that each generation has its own King David. They see him in a different light and cast upon him their own personal traits, their fractures, and their hopes to be redeemed.
The book of Zohar regards David as the hero with a thousand faces. David of the Zohar is poor and deficient, empty – and therefore filling up, and being a penitent (ba’al teshuva). He knows how a man’s bruised and low soul can be elevated from the depths, to a level of joy and thankfulness. For being able to interpret this concept, one has to figure out the essence of repentance – teshuva in the Kabballah. When a man repents (chozer b’tshuva) – he “returns in teshuva.”
According to the Zohar, the place we return to when we repent is our supreme mother, the Sephira, and we receive understanding from the Tree of the Ten Sephirot. Returning to our mother means to be gathered to the mother’s womb, a sort of death in order to be reborn, a self-nullification for gaining a new life.
And what has King David to do with this feminine process? Surprisingly, the Zohar identifies King David as the Shechina, the same Shechina that seemingly has nothing of her own, even though the other sephirot depend on her, and she is the most concentrated and colorful of them all. David is like a hero returning from a voyage, radiating a myriad of lights collected from all his sins and fractures. Had they remained in the form of fractures alone, darkness would have prevailed in the world. Thanks to Understanding – the mother and the wife – they have turned into a spectacular kaleidoscope of lights.
David refuses to hide his sins. After having confessed, acknowledging his deeds and admitting them, the sin loses its form, returns into its raw essence, and finally turns into praise to the Lord. God, on his part, forgives our sin and gathers us to Him. Thus, David turns his soul into a lever of teshuva out of love. Precisely these factors – his feminine side, his majestic quality and his skill to turn a confession into praise – enable David to ascend to mother Understanding and immerse us in the river of forgiveness.