Parshat Ki Tisa: "Nothing Gold Can Stay"

“Aspens”  by Gregory Arth

“Aspens” by Gregory Arth


“Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost (1874–1963)

Nature's first green is gold, 
Her hardest hue to hold. 
Her early leafs a flower; 
But only so an hour. 
Then leaf subsides to leaf. 
So Eden sank to grief, 
So dawn goes down to day. 
Nothing gold can stay.

Professor Alfred R. Ferguson (1915–1974) explains, “Our whole human experience makes us aware that dawn is tentative, lovely, but incomplete and evanescent. Our expectation is that dawn does not ‘go down’ to day, but comes up...into the satisfying warmth of sunlight and full life...If the reader accepts green leaf and the full sunlight of day as finally more attractive than the transitory golden flower and the rose flush of a brief dawn, he must also accept the Edenic sinking into grief as a rise into a larger life...Frost, both through language and through structure, has emphasized in ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’ not merely the melancholy of transitory beauty—of Paradise—but an affirmation of the fortunate fall.”

“Nothing gold can stay,” I regularly tell myself. Life is fleeting. Its golden radiance only lingers for so long. In Frost’s poem, we bear witness to the magnificence of dawn. A period of time that rests between the moon’s soothing nocturnal glow and the sun’s scorching, overpowering luminescence that dispels the beauty of dawn’s short-lived existence. Right before each sunrise we observe this cycle. We glimpse into dawn’s window. But do not fret ladies and gentleman – because all is not lost. The supposed “pot of gold” that appears with the passing of daybreak is the eagerness of day itself. The glorious, enchanting sunrise is to be our jolt of existential espresso that morphs the melancholy of dawn into, “An Unexpected Journey”:

Good Morning!’ said Bilbo, and he meant it. The sun was shining, and the grass was very green. But Gandalf looked at him from under long bushy eyebrows that stuck out further than the brim of his shady hat. ‘What do you mean?’ [Gandalf] said. ‘Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?’...‘All of them at once,’ said Bilbo.
— "The Hobbit" by J.R.R Tolkien, Chapter 1: An Unexpected Party

Meaning, this radiant star called The Sun – the heart of our solar system – entreats us into the light of day. It forces us to let go of the delicate hues of gold. After all, a flower doesn’t doesn’t bloom forever. And as Ferguson explains, “By the very movement and order of the poem, we are induced to accept each change as a shift to good rather than as a decrease in value; yet each change involves a seeming diminution, a fall stressed in the verbs ‘subsides’ and ‘sank’ as well as in the implicit loss in color and beauty. The sense of a fall which is actually a part of an inherent order of nature, of the nature of the object, rather than being forced unintelligibly and externally…The pattern of paradox is assured; the fall is really no fall to be mourned. It is a felix culpa and light-bringing.”

And thus, if this poem were to be encapsulated into an oversaturated, pithy phrase, we might say: “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” Or Marilyn Monroe’s advice: “Sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together.” And if you’ve had a brief moment to talk with me on any deep level, you might know that I abhor these phrases. I detest their implicit gestures that there’s “Nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile.” (my apologies Mr. Jerry Garcia, but we know that’s just not the truth - it’s not even close).

Because while we can affirm the (un)fortunate fall that we all know will happen – its nonetheless heartbreaking and sorrowful. No offense to Frost if Ferguson, but “A rise into a larger life,” isn’t exactly a mitigating sentiment. Not in the slightest. In perfect English: “It still sucks and I don’t feel any better about it. It’s an adventure I would rather not take if given a choice.” Or as Bilbo Baggins might say:

We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them...Sorry! I don’t want any adventures, thank you. Not today. Good morning!
— "The Hobbit" by J.R.R Tolkien, Chapter 1: An Unexpected Party

Like any good hobbit who enjoys living in The Shire, I gravitate towards the words of Rabbi Elazar. When found lying in a dark room by his teacher Rabbi Yohanan, Rabbi Elazar explains that he weeps not over his own misfortune, but “Over this beauty that will decompose in the earth.” To which Rabbi Yohanan replies, “‘Over this, it is certainly appropriate to weep.’ And Both cried over the fleeting nature of beauty in the world and death that eventually overcomes all.” [1]

“Over this, It is certainly appropriate to weep.” Quite possibly one of the most emotionally intelligent of any Talmudic sentiments. It’s okay to mourn the loss of dawn. To weep over its fleeting joy. Its shimmering elegance that existed “For only an hour.” It’s okay for things not to be okay. Because there really is no right or wrong way to grieve a loss.

And thus, this week, I endeavor to make a case for a biblical leader I’m quite fond of – Aaron (brother of Moses). This week, I encourage you to take an unconventional look at the Golden Calf incident. The abominable object we are told to despise. The despicable false god that we have been taught was heretical by its very nature. Vile. To the point that Moses had to climb back up Mt. Sinai - engulfed in seething anger, he literally broke the original Ten Commandments right there on the spot. Yes. That nasty disturbing uncomfortable thing. And no, I’m not endorsing Aaron or his actions, but I can sympathize with Children of Israel – I can see why they did what they did – and I don’t condemn them for replacing God’s golden boy with a Golden Calf. Who am I to judge? In parshat Ki Tisa we read:

“When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.’ Aaron said to them, ‘Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.’ And all the people took off the gold rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. This he took from them and cast in a mold, and made it into a molten calf…[2]

As Rashi explains:

“On the sixteenth of Tammuz Satan came and threw the world into confusion, giving it the appearance of darkness, gloom and disorder that people should say: ‘Surely Moses is dead, and that is why confusion has come into the world!’ He said to them, ‘Yes, Moses is dead, for six hours (noon) has already come and he has not returned etc.’” [3]

Meaning, “The people needed a replacement for Moses. Their enthusiasm for the Gold Calf was only because it was a substitute for their vanished leader. The people thought that Moses was dead and had been left without a leader and intermediary between themselves and God…they needed some tangible presence to take his place.” [4] Meaning, the Children of Israel weren’t necessarily disobeying God. They were bemoaning the loss of Moses. They needed to fill the void of Moses with something that felt real. Substantial. Available. Tangible. Accessible. Something immovable that wouldn’t leave them to climb a hill or vanish amidst the clouds.

On that particular day, Eden indeed sank to grief. And when that occurred, lamentation took the form of a construction project aimed at bringing solace. Not malice. It wasn't intended to hurt. It was meant to heal. But as the story goes, Nothing gold can stay. The Golden Calf wasn’t meant to last forever. It was temporary. A Band-Aid for a soul-fractured people. And fortunately for them, Moses did come back. He continued to lead. He continued to go between God and the Children of Israel. But that’s not always the case…

This week, I am reminded that no one has the right answer for grief. Nobody has the perfect ingredients for remedying a loss. Even an unavoidable one. Like the passing of seasons from Summer to Fall as autumn leaves drift from swaying trees – a day we known will come – but is nonetheless saddening. Yes I know all too well that nothing gold can stay. But sometimes I sure wish it could. Even for just one more minute.

[1] Berakhot 5b, The William Davidson Talmud
[2] Exodus 32:1-4
[3] Rash on Ex. 32:1
[4] The Stone Edition Chumash, p. 493

Aaron Sataloff