Learning What to Feel During Teshuva From Dovid Hamelech’s Experiences

The following is a piece from the Refuat Hanefesh column “Struggling Together: Mental Health in The Torah”. In this column, Tzivia Appleman draws on her time studying in Israel, as well as her passion for enhancing society’s mental health views, to propose ways we can understand the emotional state and struggles of the characters and leaders of Tanach many of us grew up with. The opinions shared in this column as they relate to characters in Tanach are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of Refuat Hanefesh.


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Repentance Arrives

It’s that time of year again – the time to return. Our most common association with the word “Teshuva” is that of repentance. We cry out in pain and agony over all of our faults, each sin accompanied by a solemn bang on the chest. However, as we begin the “Yamim Noaraim” (holy days), the question arises: To what extent should we afflict ourselves with pain and self-degradation during the Teshuva process?


If scanning over the words of Rabbenu Yona in his famous work Shaarei Teshuva, it is quite likely for the reader to be aroused to do Teshuva out of complete fear and agony. In contrast, if one would read Rav Kook’s Orot Hateshuva, the reader would gain the completely different outlook of doing Teshuva out of love. While these are important perspectives on Teshuva, the purpose of this piece (and this column) is not to focus on contemporary sources. This piece will aim to give a deeper perception of the emotional process of Teshuva. To do this, we will look even further back to Judaism’s paradigm of repentance: Dovid Hamelech.



Dovid Confronts His Sin

After Dovid succumbed to his desires and slept with Batsheva, a married woman, Natan the Navi tells Dovid that he will be punished with the death of his son. Considering this intense encounter, one would expect Dovid to react dramatically. However, the Navi provides us with an anticlimactic response form Dovid: (Shmuel Bet 12:13)

…וַיֹּ֤אמֶר דָּוִד֙ אֶל־נָתָ֔ן חָטָ֖אתִי לַֽיהוָ֑ה – “I sinned before God…”

What kind of response is this?! Especially coming from Dovid, the most eloquent poet in all of Tanach, a two-word apology seems surprisingly inadequate. Moreover, Dovid is still forgiven!


The next part of the story is even more perplexing. Although Dovid is forgiven, he is nonetheless punished with the impending death of his child. With this new information, he responds differently:

וַיְבַקֵּ֥שׁ דָּוִ֛ד אֶת־הָאֱלֹהִ֖ים בְּעַ֣ד הַנָּ֑עַר וַיָּ֤צָם דָּוִד֙ צ֔וֹם וּבָ֥א וְלָ֖ן וְשָׁכַ֥ב אָֽרְצָה – “David entreated God for the boy; David fasted, and he went in and spent the night lying on the ground.”

In this one Perek, we are presented with two very different forms of repentance: a seemingly terse apology and complete self-torture. Which version are we supposed to follow?


Further examination of Dovid’s “two-word apology” is necessary. Multiple commentaries, including the Be’er Avraham and Sefer Kol Eliyahu, explain that these words were meant to merely be the beginning of Dovid’s confession. He planned on going into much further detail, almost like a true halachic “Vidui” (admission to sin). However, Natan stopped him mid-sentence since God had already forgiven him after those two words! Although Dovid was forgiven quickly, we know that he still had a longer confession in mind. Our two models of Teshuva are now modified: a thoughtful confession and personal torture.



How to Repent

The question still rests with us: how should we go about our own repentance? In order to contemplate this quandary further, there’s another place in Tanach where we can turn to, hearing testimony from Dovid himself: Tehillim. There are multiple places in Tehillim where Dovid alludes to his sins, such as Chapter 32: “As long as I said nothing, my limbs wasted away from my anguished roaring all day long. For night and day, Your hand lay heavy on me; my vigor waned as in the summer drought.”


Before Dovid confessed and recognized his sin, he was in complete agony. He was living a lie by suppressing all of his feelings. “Then I acknowledged my sin to You; I did not cover up my guilt; I resolved, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,’ and You forgave the guilt of my sin. Therefore, let every faithful man pray to You upon discovering [his sin], that the rushing mighty waters not overtake him.” Once he confessed, Dovid felt completely relieved. No longer was he stuck in his own cognitive dissonance. Here, we see that Dovid didn’t need to torture himself in order to repent. If anything, the lack of a response is what causes him that pain. The confession itself is what relieves and frees a person.


Chapter 51, though, gives us a glimpse into the validity of the torturous side to Teshuva. Dovid begins by pleading for forgiveness, to be fully cleansed of sin. He promises that he will be the model of repentance for others who have sinned as well. But, as the Perek continues, Dovid implies how he feels that he needed to push himself down in order to be forgiven: “You do not want me to bring sacrifices; You do not desire burnt offerings; True sacrifice to God is a contrite spirit; God, You will not despise a contrite and crushed heart.”



Repent But Let Go

After this in-depth examination, it appears that both forms of Teshuva are valid and necessary. We shouldn’t view ourselves as if we are completely worthless. How could we ever get back up if we don’t even believe in ourselves? The value of getting back up is also expressed in that same Perek from Shmuel Bet: After Dovid’s son dies, he cleans himself up and carries on with normal life. Everyone around him was astonished – how could he be crying in pain before his child even died; yet, now he seems fine? Dovid responded in the most heartbreaking, yet powerful, way: “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept because I thought: ‘Who knows? The LORD may have pity on me, and the child may live.’ But now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will never come back to me.”


When the opportunity to be forgiven still exists, we must take advantage of it! But we cannot remain in a constant state of depression. Like Dovid, we must be cognizant of which times are appropriate to feel the pain and when we need to learn to let go.


At the same time, we are reminded of the concept of “No pain, no gain.” We can’t brush away the ability to enact change in our lives just because it’s hard, or that we’re nervous about feeling deeply sad about ourselves. The low is what will bring us to the high; we just can’t let ourselves plummet into an abyss, incapable of being saved.




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Tzivia Appleman
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