Erica Brown

A Holiday Of Impossibility

Shabbat Shalom
Candlelighting, Readings:
Candles: 7:24 p.m. (Fri.); 7:26 p.m. (Sun.); after 8:29 p.m. (Mon.)
Torah Reading: Ex. 33:12-34:26 (Sat.); Ex. 8:17-15:26 (Mon.); Deut. 15:19-16:7 (Tue.), Num. 25:19-25 (Mon. & Tues.) 
Haftarah: Ezekiel 38:1-14 (Sat.); II Sam. 22:1-51 (Mon.); Isaiah 20:32-12:6 (Tue.)
Shabbat ends: 8:26 p.m.
Passover ends: 8:30 p.m. (Tues.)

As we come to the close of Passover, on the Seventh Day we read a special haftarah from Shmuel Bet [II Samuel]. Like the Song of Moses that is read from the Torah [Exodus 15], this haftarah contains parallels in David’s prose/poem of thanksgiving.

According to Rashi, David uttered these poetic words in his old age, looking back on his life adventures with the perspective of gratitude. But it is not only gratitude that David expresses. David realizes that God’s support has allowed David to become a better, more empowered leader. It gave David a new vision of himself.

Like Moses’ victory song on crossing the Sea of Reeds, David’s poem reflects on his brush with death and his fear of the enemy: “For the breakers of death encompassed me … the coils of death engulfed me” [II Sam. 22:6]. David uses images of water to capture his sense of impending doom. Being engulfed or encompassed by water creates the sinking, drowning sensation that may have been experienced initially by the children of Israel as they leaped into the unknown as the sea was splitting.

David moves from images of fear and raw accounts of danger to praise and thanks to God. He describes God as just and compassionate, as a lamp in darkness and as a stronghold who keeps David’s path secure. All of these images — the fear, the praise and the thanks — are already familiar to us from his Psalms.

The originality of David’s words as a leader comes later, in II Samuel 22:30. Only after having taken risks, does David realize the source of his strength. David envisions himself as more powerful as a result of God’s watchfulness: “With You, I can rush a barrier; with my God, I can scale a wall” [II Sam. 22:30]. This mix of military and athletic images is particularly potent when we think of David’s early years; approaching the mammoth Goliath with a small slingshot and stones, and then emerging with King Saul as a military hero. He could rush barriers and scale walls. More important than the fact that he could do these things was the belief that he could.

The power of belief in oneself is what drove the Children of Israel through the sea. Moses stood on the sea’s edge, asking the Children of Israel to watch God’s salvation. But God told Moses that salvation was not outside of him but within him and within us all. He asked Moses to take the first step, and with it, the walls of water formed. With that first step, we were able to rush barriers and scale walls. Nothing seemed impossible.

Jewish history is a celebration of the impossible. Passover is only one piece of the impossible dream of our Jewish past. Michael Fishbane writes in his commentary that our haftarah parallels the Torah reading by referring and reliving incidents of significance in our biblical past: “This layering of memory is an essential feature of Jewish cultural consciousness. Recitation of these events in the synagogue transfers them to new generations, deepening the shared past and its central images.”

But we can also expand on this idea to include a broader sweep of Jewish time. Creating acts of meaning in the present is only possible because of the impossibility of our Jewish past. The fact that we have been able to rush barriers and scale walls today is largely a result of the knowledge that we have been doing that for centuries.

On Passover, we affirm the impossible and, thereby, create infinite possibilities for future generations.

Erica Brown is the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. She can be reached at

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–Herenstein Center. Her latest book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid Books).