Nothing Gold Can Stay — Parashat Eikev, August 26, 2016
by Rabbi Heather Miller
Photo Credit: News on 6
Do you know what this is? It is a picture of the House from the 1983 movie which starred Patrick Swayze, Tom Cruise, Ralph Macchio, Matt Dillon, Emilio Estevez, and Rob Lowe and was based upon a book, a book that was once placed upon a banned book list. Of course I am talking about The Outsiders— this is the Curtis brothers’ house from the movie and after having fallen into disrepair in real life, it was recently restored in Oklahoma by rapper and musician DannyBoy of House of Pain and Jump Around Fame. A friend of mine was involved in the project and I thought you might enjoy knowing about it.
Any Outsiders fans here tonight?
You may recall the famous line at the end of the film about the main character– Stay Gold Ponyboy, Stay Gold. Ralph Macchio, playing Johnny Cade makes this plea to his friend Ponyboy, played by C. Thomas Howell, as he watches his best friend die and with him, their innocence and the halcyon days of their childhood.
The film concludes with one of the characters reading a Robert Frost poem about the end of innocence, the end of an Eden-like existence- and emphasizes the transitory nature of life. The poem is called “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” It reads:
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.
From this poem, written in the 19th century, and again popularized in the 1980s, we are reminded that gold is a metaphor for that which seems shiny and good or valuable, but that in the end, it does not last; it is fleeting.
We learned that lesson especially at the close of Olympics– when gold medalist, Ryan Lochte, having earlier been given several gold medals and standing on the pedestal numerous times, was questioned for the story he fabricated about being held up at gunpoint. As a result of this fiasco, he was stripped of his speedo endorsement and he incurred numerous fines.
Gold medalist Usain Bolt has, in the days following his gold medal performances, has been in the news about his infidelities, and former gold medalist, Hope Solo, has been called out for her unsportsmanlike conduct calling her opposing team names after she lost to them.
We are reminded that having all the money in the world, even a gold medal, doesn’t mean that a person is moral or ethical.
That’s why Judaism places value not on medals or metals, but rather on ethics.
This week’s Torah portion Eikev discusses the dangers of gold.
First, speaking of those of other nations who worship other Gods, Deuteronomy chapter 7 verse 25 reminds us that:
לֹא-תַחְמֹד כֶּסֶף וְזָהָב עֲלֵיהֶם, וְלָקַחְתָּ לְָך
“… you shall not covet the silver and gold on them and keep it for yourselves, lest you be ensnared thereby; for that is abhorrent to the LORD your God.”
Commentary from 16th century Italian Rabbi Ovadya Sforno, interpreting this verse, further warns that if you make an:
“investment of silver and gold deriving from idolatrous sources, you will attribute this to the goodwill of their idols, which in turn will become a trap for you (theologically speaking).”
13th century Franco-German commentaters remarked in the Daat Zkenim on Deut 8:1 that the Israelites had managed without any (silver or gold) over the course of the forty years in the desert until that point, (and therefore), it is not silver and gold that keeps people alive.
All of this is to say that the Torah and its subsequent commentaries is littered with warnings and reminders and cautions against placing too much importance upon material wealth, especially the metal that symbolizes material welath- that is gold. Rather, we should remember
what really keeps us alive and sustains us- 1) God and 2) community– our relationships with one another, our ability to share and care and be good to one another. Establishing a good name, and joining together to feed the hungry, dance with newlyweds, heal the sick, comfort the
bereaved, etc. These are things that sustain the world. Not mere gold.
All of these warnings against the dangers of gold remind us of another golden but despicable act in Jewish history– the golden calf. We get shivers down our spines just to mention it, right?
In this week’s Torah portion, Eikev, Moses, in this last long speech, reminds the people that: when he was up on Mount Sinai preparing to write and transmit the entirety of the Torah to the Jewish people, the people got restless. So, they created a golden calf to worship. When Moses descended the mountain, he saw them dancing around the shiny golden object and he was incensed — in anger, he threw down the tablets shattering them. As punitive punishment, he ordered the calf to be destroyed into teeny tiny dust bits, and disposed in the nearby brook. If you think he was mad, God, in God’s anger was considering obliterating the people for the offense of the Golden Calf. In an act of compassion, Moses worked persuade God to give them another chance by recognizing the people had repented. Fortunately God did give them/us another chance.
This portion reminds us that whatever we do, even when we do something so abhorrent s creating false Gods out of precious metals, we can still apologize and vow to change our way, and if sincere, we will be considered for forgiveness. A great portion to read right now on our way to the Days of Awe when reflection upon our values and purpose are front and center.
What we learn to all of this is that gold and money are not what’s important.
The yiddish word for synagogue is “shul.” And especially at this time of year, some people say they are “shul shopping.” But, Torah would lead us to the conclusion that this is not the right approach when thinking about what community to join. There is nothing transactionary about it. Nothing consumerist– one is not simply purchasing temple membership as one would purchase an insurance policy.
Rather, joining a synagogue is about humans and our responsibility to one another– in word and deed and yes in finances, but it is not a purchase. Here, we don’t call them membership dues. It is membership financial contribution. And that financial contribution accompanies an individual or family’s contribution of time, skill, attention, and goodwill to this community.
And, in the process of each of us actively participating in this endeavor, we are, together, building something of real quality more powerful than gold- we are building community.
Tonight as we enter into the meditative silence of the next prayer, the Amidah, let us draw our attention to gratitude for all that is most valuable in our lives that is not gold.