A sweet story is always worth repeating. A young student once went to see the Lev Simcha. When asked which yeshiva he attended, he replied with the name of an institution renowned for its work with newly committed students. “But I’m not a baal teshuva,” he quickly added. “Why not?” was the Rebbe’s rejoinder. “We should all strive to be baalei teshuva.”
In this world of labels and characterization, some people may think of baalei teshuva as a certain kind of exotic being brave and noble, but not really part of the general population. Of course, this is ludicrous. Every person stagnates unless constant thoughts of teshuva are on his mind. The whole of one’s life should be considered and refined regularly. If not, we stop growing.
King David knew what it was to do teshuva, and through his Tehillim, he left us ample lessons to be learned. This particular kapitel was written after the events surrounding the death of Batsheva’s husband Uriah. From his previous heights of spirituality, David felt he had fallen into the abyss. His sin weighed heavily on his mind. He realized that as leader of his people, his sin could be held against them as well. David knew there is no such thing as a behavior that is solely the business of the one who performs it. In spiritual matters, a “victimless crime” does not exist. We are all responsible for each other, and when one fails, his actions have repercussions on others. The spiritual air we breathe changes when a member of our community becomes ensnared in sinful actions.
Thus David cries out, Hear, Hashem, righteousness. Pay attention to my cry. Listen to my prayer from guileless lips. David’s first step is to accept his wrongdoing. He dares not even start to repent until he has wiped away all deceit from his lips. Our sages tell us that David was the first to repent, and thus he paved the way for all future baalei teshuva. The Maharal points out that while we know of previous penitents, such as Adam, Cain and Reuven, David’s teshuva was unique. The others had all sought someone or something else to blame for their sins, and only later on did they admit to the wrongdoing. David, though, reached this step first. When the prophet accused him in the matter of Batsheva, he responded simply, “I have sinned.” Because of this attitude, he can now cry to Hashem and hope for Divine attention.
If David’s approach was unique in previous generations, how much more so now, where every misstep is readily blamed on others. David’s humble acceptance of his responsibility is an inspiration. Mitigating circumstances may have pressured us into acting as we did, but when we face Hashem, we must be honest. We must take hold of ourselves and not try to escape responsibility by blaming circumstances beyond our control. “Stuff happens” in every life. The test is what we do with that “stuff” to make our lives more positive.
David continues, Please dismiss the accusations against me. May Your eyes see only my integrity. Here David asks that Hashem take into account all the good he has done in the past. After accepting his guilt, David does not give up and become totally despondent. He is fully aware that a depressed state will never bring about a positive future. Instead, he speaks for a moment about the good he brought to this world, asking that in this merit his current state be put aside.
You examined my heart, inspecting it in the night. You cleansed me of my scheming thoughts, that they may never cross my lips again. David then returns to his teshuva. He knows full well that he was tested and failed. Our sages tell us that David actually asked to be tested. He aspired to a higher level of holiness and was told that to reach the level he hoped for, he would first have to pass just such a crisis. His failure therefore carried a double weight on his heart. Not only would he never reach the level he had hoped for, but he had placed his people in jeopardy. Thus David prays that no scheming cross his lips. Again he tells us that in the final analysis, we have to clear our minds from all scheming and reasoning. Instead we must take ourselves to a simpler place: Support my footsteps on the circuitous byways so that my feet will not falter. Even these circuitous byways, where our view of the final goal is sometimes obstructed, are laid out for us by Hashem. Life is filled with ups and downs, but if we follow to Hashem’s pathways, we our journey is sure to be safe.
I have called out to You because You will answer me, God. Today we seek help in many quarters, but the ultimate answer must always come from Hashem. The main thing is to call out to Him.
Sometimes we are so busy seeking reasons for our distress and failures that we forget it is Hashem Who runs this world. Just as a loving father always awaits his child, so Hashem waits for us to turn to Him. Nurturing a festering anger against people around us won’t bring anyone joy. Here we are told to direct our cry of pain to Hashem, Who will always listen.
The kapitel now comes to a passage that draws together all the various strings that make up true teshuva. Guard me as the apple of Your eye. Hide me in the shadow of Your wings from the evildoers who want to rob me, from my mortal enemies who surround me. The “apple of the eye” is the pupil, the point that lets in light. The Radak says that when we look into another person’s pupil, we see our own reflection as a small man. The ArtScroll Tehillim quotes Harav Gifter, zt”l, who derives from this a moral lesson. Most people observe others in order to find fault in them, thus boosting their own egos by feeling smug and superior. This is not the proper way. Rather, when you look at someone else you should see only yourself and realize what a small man you are compared to your neighbor. Here is the secret of being truly on the road of teshuva. As long as we stare into others’ eyes and see their faults and mistakes, we can never get past the superficiality of it all; we can never see that in truth, we are the small-minded and insecure ones. David faced his situation, and therefore he had the right to ask Hashem to guard him as “the apple of His eye.”
We are given these words of King David so that we too can come to such levels. There is so much bitterness going around today. People look down on others, never really understanding or caring. This is a wall we have erected ourselves. Such a barrier does not allow for growth, and certainly not for teshuva. It causes the anger within us to fester, because the ill feeling, which is certainly a sin, doesn’t dissipate. Rather, it gets worse because of our lack of true teshuva. This can surely be one of the causes for the devastation we see all around us.
As David saw, every action has an effect on others, and like a physical virus, this spiritual one is highly contagious. When we start to look at the “little man” within instead of looking critically at those around us, we too will hopefully be able to end with King David’s final words: Because of my concern for justice, I will merit to behold Your countenance. At the revival of the dead, I will be satisfied by Your likeness.
Text Copyright © 2007 by Torah.org.