The biblical book of Samuel depicts David going from his role as the favorite of King Saul to being the target of his rage, jealousy, and obsession. Convinced that David is determined to overthrow him and replace him as monarch, Saul leads a contingent of soldiers in pursuing his former protégé into the Judean Desert. When presented with a chance to assassinate the king hellbent on killing him, David instead cuts off a piece of his cloak and—once at a safe distance—holds it up as proof that he remains loyal to Saul. Saul, whose fear of David has brought him past the point of madness, remains unsatisfied.
Benjamin Goldschmidt reflects on this story in the context of David’s life, the Days of Awe—a time of forgiveness and reconciliation—and the psalms of David incorporated into the High Holy Day liturgy:
It is [after this encounter] that David says to himself, “‘Someday I shall certainly perish at the hands of Saul.’” He realizes that at a certain point, he cannot expose himself to danger anymore, that Saul is intent on his destruction and that he can no longer rely on the caves of the desert for safety. It is then that our revered Jewish hero must turn, in humiliation, to Israel’s enemy, the Philistines, to give him asylum.
But according to the M’tsudat David, [the 18th-century commentary of Rabbi David Altschuler], David’s realization is not only that he is no longer safe anywhere in Israel. It is also an internal revelation that after that moment in the cave, there is nothing he can do to salvage this relationship. David knows that he will never play the lyre for his mentor again; he will never carry his armor into battle again.
King David’s glory was not defined by the battle against [Goliath] in the valley of Elah. His greatness was not displayed fully in public, before two nations watching. Rather, it was in the darkness of the cave—in which he showed his moral strength by not avenging himself, and by allowing God to serve as true judge. His moral character is defined while in hiding, in his lowest moment, when even then he is able to find the downtrodden and bring them under his wings. This is the person who seven years later will enter Jerusalem and make it the eternal capital of Israel and a bedrock of civilization. This is the ancestor of the messianic redemption.