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Saint or Sinner: The Mistakes of Our Greats

This is a discussion of the most sensitive nature in our small, Jewish world. wisdom (2)We approach the study  of our Biblical ancestors with the reverence due to the greatest, most accomplished of men and women in history. A basic question though must be addressed before the serious study of Nevi’im (the Prophets). How we are to understand the supposed sins or mistakes of the great Prophets and Kings of Israel?

There are many approaches to this question and it may very well be that many of these viewpoints are complementary and are all part of a general understanding of this challenging subject.

תלמוד בבלי מסכת שבת דף נה עמוד ב

אמר רבי שמואל בר נחמני אמר רבי יונתן: כל האומר ראובן חטא - אינו אלא טועה,


אמר רבי שמואל בר נחמני אמר רבי יונתן: כל האומר בני עלי  חטאו - אינו אלא טועה,


אמר רבי שמואל בר נחמני אמר רבי יונתן: כל האומר

בני שמואל חטאו - אינו אלא טועה


אמר רבי שמואל בר נחמני אמר רבי יונתן: כל האומר דוד חטא - אינו אלא טועה

‘ Whoever says that Reuvain sinned... that the sons of Eli sinned... that the sons of Shmuel sinned... that David sinned... etc  is making an error’.

The Talmud is clearly troubled by the suggestion that our saintly, Biblical personalities sinned. Therefore R' Shmuel suggests that if one were to state that King David sinned, the mistake would not be with King David but with the assessment of the person who made the statement. One though cannot ignore King David's own admission to sinning (see Shmuel II 12:13). The Malbim (Shmuel II, 12:13) suggests that one of the significant differences between King Shaul and King David is their ability to admit their mistakes and thus perform Teshuva (repentance).

See Psalms 51, where David clearly says “I have sinned” in reference to the episode of Bat Sheva:

תהלים פרק נא

   א)   למנצח מזמור לדוד:

 ב)   בבוא אליו נתן הנביא כאשר בא אל בת שבע:

  ג)   חנני אלהים כחסדך כרב רחמיך מחה פשעי:

King David's sin becomes integral to his identity and is included in his own liturgical writing. His relationship with God is in as much about his mistakes as it is about his accomplishments.

To judge our Prophets according to our low standards, in the reference of our world morality today is unacceptable and undoubtedly would be our mistake.

For instance, the issue with King David and Bat Sheva is not just a simple case of sin, but a much more complex issue of the future of Jewish kingship.

Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler For more info. on R' Dessler click on the above image

Rav Dessler z’l (Michtav Me’eliahu: Vol. 2) understands King David's pursuit of Bat Sheva in a different light.  King David understood through prophecy that the child of his union through Bat Sheva would be the next monarch of Israel. His mistake perhaps was only in that he actively pursued Bat Sheva and should have waited for events to take their natural course.

The Malbim (Shmuel II Chapter 12) insists that one cannot suggest King Davids mistake was one that would  question the integrity of King Shlomo's reign. Through our advantage of hindsight, with the knowledge that King Shlomo ruled Israel through its most successful era, including the building of the first Beis Hamikdash (Temple in Jerusalem) we can assess that King David did not err in a way that would bring into question the lineage of King Shlomo. Further study is required to understand the mistake of King David and thus his attitude towards Bat Sheva and Uriah.

We will examine this further at a later date when we closely study Chapter 12 of Shmuel II.

An alternate approach to understanding these mistakes is to state simply that we are not a religion of ‘saints’ but of mortals who achieved the greatest spiritual heights. This is recorded for all history so that we are aware that the struggle for greatness is difficult for all, even the most elevated, sacred personalities. This approach is focused on a more realistic attitude and we acknowledge the intrinsic importance of Teshuva (repentance) especially in recognizing man’s limitations in this mortal existence.

In essence it may be that both these ideas are really parts of a whole picture. Our ‘greats’ did ‘sin’ and it is important to understand this since King David did admit so publicly  himself (perhaps similar to his ancestor Yehuda, see Genesis Chapter 38). It is critical though to remember that if we really think that we understand the deepest level of what these ‘sins’ were, we are warned by the Talmud to be careful and not judge these great people without the most intense scrutiny of the subject matter.

The purpose of recording these mistakes is not to, God forbid, criticize our revered prophets  but to inspire within us a deeper appreciation for their humanity and spiritual loftiness. Our limited ability may not permit us to evaluate our Prophets and Kings with sense of reverence due to them and the events surrounding their lives. It is therefore our challenge to find out and pursue the truth to the best of our ability and be guided by Chazal (Rabbis) and the commentators who have grappled with these issues for generations.

Questions for further study:

Ron Fournier on President Bush

To take this discussion one level further see Ron Fournier's article on President George W. Bush. Taking into account President Bush's attitude towards respect for the office of the President and thereby respect for the United States of America, how would this translate into showing respect for our Prophets and thereby showing respect for Klal Yisrael?