Psalm (Tehillah) 32
One of David’s greatest teachings was that of the difficult art of repentance. David was. He who lifted the burden of repentance (Moed Katan16b); he demonstrated that forgiveness is accessible to all who sincerely seek it.
Of the many psalms addressed to this topic, this is the first. In it, David explains that there is more to repentance than simply attaining Divine forgiveness.
Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerona (Shaarei Teshuvah 1:9) summarizes the essence of this psalm:
There are many levels of repentance by which one draws closer to the Holy One, Blessed be He. Although every type of repentance brings about at least some forgiveness, the soul cannot become completely purified to the extent that the sins are regarded as never having been committed, unless the heart is cleansed and the spirit is properly conditioned; as it is written, ‘Praiseworthy is the man to whom YHWH does not account iniquity and whose spirit is without deceit (v.2). The soul may be compared to a garment that needs cleansing. A little washing will suffice to remove the surface dirt, but only after repeated washings will it become entirely clean. Therefore, it is written that the penitent says: Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity (51:4).
The highest level of purity and forgiveness is achieved on Yom Kippur; as the Torah states: For on this day He shall atone for you to purify you from all your sins, before YHWH shall you be purified (Leviticus 16:30)
Verse 5 of this psalm tells how Nathan the Prophet informed David that Elohim had completely forgiven his transgression with Bath Sheba. The Zohar (Bereishis 8b) says that Nathan made this pronouncement on Yom Kippur.
The Vilna Gaon designates this psalm as the Song of the Day, for Yom Kippur (Maaseh Rav 216). The Ashkenazi custom, as recorded in Siddur Avodas Yisrael, is to recite this psalm on Shabbos Shuvah, the Sabbath preceding Yom Kippur.
According to the Sage Meiri a Maskil is a musical instrument that derives its name from its capacity to enlighten the human intellect. The chords of the Maskil focus the mind upon what is being said. Furthermore it inspired the heart to repentance. Thus, the medium truly complemented the message.
Midrash Shocker Tov quotes the verse, ‘The path of life is upwards for the wise’ (Proverbs 15:24). The Maskil causes the listener to train his gaze upward.
‘…whose transgression is forgiven…” [lit. whose rebellious sin is lifted.] The Talmud (Yoma 36b) classifies three main categories of transgression: There is the sin committed with intention of rebelling against Elohim. There is the intentional sin, but one which results from weakness in the face of desire rather than from rebelliousness. The third is unintentional sin as a result of carelessness. The last requires repentance and forgiveness because if more care had been exercised, the mistake would not have occurred. The Talmud goes on to explain Elohim’s forgiveness, which is one of His thirteen attributes of Mercy: ‘He forgives iniquity, transgression and sin’ (Exodus 34:7)
YHWH’s Thirteen Attributes of Mercy are:
Moshe said to the Holy One, Blessed be He, ‘Sovereign of the Universe. When the Children of Israel sin against You, please consider their intentional transgressions as if they were merely unintentional errors.
Elohim surely exercises His attribute of Mercy towards one who sincerely repents. Therefore, the verse may be interpreted as: ‘Fortunate is he whose intentional rebellion is removed through repentance, thus it becomes covered over, i.e. its severity is mercifully obscured, and it is considered unintentional sin.’
Meiri holds that the intentional sin discussed here is removed only through painful affliction; as we find, ‘and they will suffer for their iniquity’ (Numbers 18:23). He goes on to explain that in the first two verses of the psalm David enumerates four different groups of people who will enter the Hereafter cleansed of sin. However their means of achieving this state differ greatly. The man described as cleansed through affliction represents the first group. [The rest will be describes as we progress.]
“…whose sin is covered.” Radak (v. 1) quotes his father who explains that this refers to the man who has an abundance of merits and righteous deeds to his credit, but has also committed a relatively minor sin. This misdeed is covered by his countless merits and is not visible, like a lone kernel of millet which fell into many bushfulls of wheat.
Meiri holds that the relatively slight sin is covered by a proportionally mild punishment. This is the second group which enters the Hereafter in cleanliness.
The Talmud (Yoma 86b) teaches, Rav noted that the following verses seem to be in contradiction. The verse reads, ‘Fortunate is he whose transgression is removed, whose sin is covered,’ yet elsewhere it is written, ‘He who covers his transgression will not succeed, but whoever confesses and forsakes them shall have mercy’ (Proverbs 28:13). Rav explained that there is really no difficulty. The verses in Proverbs refers to a sin which is well-known to the public [so it is better that the sinner should confess publicly and shame himself rather than deny his transgression (Rashi).] Our verse refers to a sin committed privately, [it is preferable not to reveal it for the sake of preserving Elohim’s honour, for, to publicize the fact that a transgression was committed, detracts from Elohim’s honour and awe (Rashi).]
Rav Zutra bar Tuvia said in the name of Rav Nachman, that the verse in Proverbs refers to a sin committed against ones’ fellow. [If the victim refuses to forgive the sinner, other people may be informed so that they may try to induce the victim to accept the apology for the penitent (Rashi).] The verse in this psalm refers to sin committed against Elohim.
[Unlike verse 1 which discusses the various sinners, the subject of this verse is the man, par excellence: a person who is free of sin].
“…to whom YHWH does not account iniquity” Although he has sinned, this man has repented so sincerely that Elohim ascribes no sin to him, having forgiven him completely (Rashi).
Quoting his father, however, Radak gives a different interpretation. He derives from this verse as referring to praise of the righteous who has never even had a thought of iniquity.
Meiri identifies this as the third category of righteous people. It consists of those who never sinned indeed but who did allow improper thoughts to enter their minds.
“…and whose spirit is without deceit.” Rashi and Radak hold that this is a requisite quality of the man to whom YHWH does not account iniquity, i.e., his repentance is so completely sincere as to assure that he will never again repeat this transgression. [Otherwise, his very repentance is deceitful and is compared to a dog who returns to (eat) his vomit (Proverbs 26:11).] According to Meiri, this is the fourth and final category of righteous people. It is composed of those who do not contemplate deceitful acts.
I refrained from confessing my sins before You (Rashi).
“…away wasted my bones…” This deterioration resulted from my constant sighing and groaning as I worried about my sins and the inevitable punishment for them (Rashi).
[Similarly we read, ‘Worry in a man’s heart lets him diminish it’ (Proverbs 12:25). The Talmud (Sotah 42b) recommends two courses of dealing with worry. Either one should attempt to forget his worries by being optimistic, or he should relieve his anxiety be discussing his problems and fears with others. However, David says that he repressed his worries and suffered silent frustration and torture. Consequently, his bones [i.e., his very essence] wasted away.’
“…through my anguished roar…” According to Rashi, the absence of repentance caused David to worry over his fate and to roar in anguish, i.e., to groan. This groaning caused his bones to waste away. However, Metzudas David says that anxiety had deteriorated his bones and the pain caused him to roar in anguish.
“…all day long.” The Talmud (Bava Metzia 4b) relates that rabbi Elazar ben Rabbi Shimon bar Yochi, wishing to purify himself from the slightest trace of a certain sin actually sought pain and affliction. However, he only welcomed the pains at night while he slept. When dawn broke, he addressed his suffering saying: ‘My brothers and my friends, depart so as not to deter me from Torah study.’ Since Rabbi Elazar could exercise such control over these pains, obviously they were afflictions of love, inflicted by Elohim to bring the sufferer closer to his Maker. However, David had no such control over his pains and they caused him to groan all day long, thus proving that they were a harsh punishment and not afflictions of love (Kesef Mezukak).
Day and night I anticipate Your dreaded punishment (Radak).
My flesh shriveled and my weight decreased as anxiety sapped my strength.
“…by summer dryness…” The Sages teach that the flesh of a totally righteous person will not decay after death even if exposed to intense heat. David bemoans his inferior state of purity, for he is sure that his body, particularly his fat, would deteriorate if it were left in the summer heat (Kesef Mezukak).
[The person who thrives in Elohim’s favour flourishes like a plant nourished by abundant water (see Psalm 1:3). Not so the sinner who is parched and withered because of divine neglect.]
This statement is in the present tense to indicate that David continuously confesses his sins and seeks forgiveness for them (Rashi).
Although all is apparent to Elohim, it is still incumbent upon man to confess his sins [not because Elohim needs information, but so that man should recognize and take responsibility for his deeds] (Radak).
“…my iniquity I do not hide…” The Beis HaLevi observes that David seems to contradict himself, for in verse 1 he said: Praiseworthy is he whose sin is covered, whereas here he prides himself on his courage in revealing his sin. This may be explained according to Rashi (Yoma 86b), who says that it is best not to reveal sin of which the public has no knowledge, for every sin is a disgrace to Elohim and detracts from the glory of the Sovereign of the Universe. However, says the Beis HaLevi, this is only before the sinner is punished. But if the sinner is afflicted and is publicly acknowledged to be a righteous man, it is commendable to inform the public of the reason for his suffering, lest they come to complain that Elohim has unjustly punished a Tzaddik. Indeed, the more he promulgates his crime and punishment, the more Elohim’s name will be sanctified for the masses will recognize that His justice shows no favour, even to the righteous.
“…I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to YHWH’ but You had forgiven my iniquitous sin, Selah.” Rashi and Sforno comment that this alludes to the harsh rebuke which Nathan the Prophet hurled against David after he sinned concerning Bath Sheba. The penitent David responded with a heartfelt confession which consisted of these few words, ‘I have sinned to YHWH’ (2 Samuel 12:13).
The Vilna Gaon elaborates on this, noting that the words “I have sinned” are followed by a pause in the Torah, i.e., an open space left after the word “sinned.” This indicates that, originally, David had intended to continue his confession, but Nathan interrupted him. For, the confession of the penitent should consist of at least three words, I have sinned [Unintentionally], I have committed iniquity [intentionally], I have rebelled (Rambam, Hilchos Teshuvah 1:2)
At every opportune time, let the penitent recite…prayer(s)…(Rashi).
Now that it is evident to all that You hear my prayer and removed my sin, let every devout man follow suit and pray for forgiveness, if ever he should err and sin (Radak).
“…at a time of accessibility…” There are moments when Elohim is more accessible as the prophet said “when he is found” [Isaiah 55:6] (Ibn Ezra). This may also means that when the penitent finds his heart free of all disturbance and preoccupation and feels fully prepared to concentrate on sincere repentance (Radak; Ibn Ezra).
In a similar statement David said, “Therefore Your servant has found his heart ready to pray to You this very prayer” [2 Samuel 7:27] (Rav Yaavets HaDoresh).
“Only that the flooding, mighty waters not overtake him.” David likens his many enemies to a flood and pleads that he not fall into their hands. Similarly, after David’s sin of counting the population of Israel he prayed (2 Samuel 24:14): And David said to [the prophet] Gad: “I am sorely distressed! Let me fall into the hands of YHWH, for His mercies are greater, but let me not fall into the hands of men”(Rashi).
He should not pray that afflictions (which are likened to the raging waters) should not reach him at all, for without affliction one cannot be cleansed of his sins. Rather, he should pray that he should not be overwhelmed by a sudden wave of tragedy (Metzudas David).
I find shelter in Your shadow from my fearsome enemies (Rashi). You constantly perform concealed miracles for me, therefore I should envelope myself in endless exclamations of praise for Your kindness (Zekan Aharon).
“From distress You preserve me.” You protect me from tormentors, danger and illness (Ibn Ezra).
“With glad song of rescue You envelop me, Selah!” Whereas I was previously surrounded by my enemies, now I will be encircled by my many exclamations of joy at having escaped from them (Radak).
So said the Holy One, Blessed be He, to David: ‘If you wish Me to safeguard you from distress, then you must keep My Torah, as it says, “safeguard it, for it is your life” (Proverbs 4:13). If you wish Me to help you escape from the wicked, then cry out joyously before Me; as it says, “with glad song of rescue You envelope me Selah” (Midrash Shocker Tov).
I have traveled down the arduous path of self-improvement and I have experienced the efficacy of prayer and penitence. Therefore I can instruct you on how to follow my example (Metzudas David). Thus the Psalmist promises his followers that he will continue to guide them by means of whatever signals are at his disposal; he will not allow them to grope aimlessly.
However, Radak and Metzudos relate signal to advise and render: I will advise you of what I have witnessed with my own eyes.
“I will signal you with my eye.” Rashi comments that signal refers to a sign given by a winking eye as in, “he winks his eyes” (Proverbs 16:30).
They cannot differentiate between a person who is treating them well and a person who is causing them harm. When one inserts a bit in their mouths to make them work they clamp their jaws shut and eagerly chew on it. But when one combs and grooms them to cleanse and beautify them, they react angrily and must be muzzled to prevent them from biting (Rashi).
But you, whom I am instructing, please don’t imitate these dumb creatures. Appraise well and appreciate the afflictions which come upon you and repent (Radak).
Malbim comments: The Psalmist uses the simile of the horse and the mule when exhorting man because the flesh and blood of man resembles that beast. The principle difference between them is that man possesses an intelligent soul which muzzles and bridles his beastly nature, coaxing it to do Elohim’s bidding. If the beastly body is not reined, i.e., kept in check, it can damage the soul just as an untamed horse can throw and injure its rider [cf. Malbim to 36:7].
The Torah warns us, You shall not despise the Egyptian for you were a sojourner in his land (Deuteronomy 23:8). [Even though the Egyptians drowned your sons in the Nile, nevertheless, you must still appreciate them for providing you with a haven in time of famine (Rashi).]
“…with muzzle and bridle…” Meiri and Rambam (comm. to Mishnah Sanhedrin 11) emphasize the main difference between the man and a beast. The dumb beast can be aroused or restrained only by external blows. Man, however can be motivated by his sense of right and propriety. He requires no outside goads or whips to spur him to mend his ways. [These echoes Talmud Berachos 7a: ‘One self-inflicted blow of rebuke inside the heart of a man is far more effective than many external beatings.’]
He who places his trust in his power and wealth rather than in Elohim and is oblivious to his own shortcomings will be afflicted with incurable suffering (Radak).
“…but he who trusts in YHWH, kindness surrounds him.” Contrary to the wicked who are surrounded by pain, the person who trusts in Elohim is surrounded by kindness (Radak).
A cantillation marking for this verse can also have it read this way, ‘Many are the afflictions of the wicked, and included among them is he who trusts in YHWH.’ If so, what is the difference between the wicked and the righteous? The trusting man does not feel the suffering as much as the wicked one because he is confident that every affliction is for his good in accordance with the Divine Will.
Romans 8:28; “And we know that in all things Elohim works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
Ibn Ezra defines the one who trusts in YHWH as the man who seeks no cure from doctors. The ultimate Healer is Elohim; His therapy is to strengthen the soul and increase in the patient’s heart the sense of heavenly awe. He who trusts in YHWH is granted relief from his maladies [Exodus 21:19; “and he shall surely heal.”]
You who trust in YHWH rejoice in that confidence and in the goodness you have achieved as its result (Radak).“Cry out in joy, all upright of heart.” This literally means make others cry out in joy. As the righteous rejoice over their own good fortune, let them share their experiences with all men of upright hearts so that they, too, may be made happy by the knowledge of Elohim’s goodness (Radak).