I walk into the local library branch to pick up a book I had ordered. After I tell the young librarian the name of the book that is on hold under my name, she turns away from me, towards the bookshelf behind her. She pirouettes towards me, my book in her hands, when I suddenly notice the most interesting tattoo on her shoulder, the words, “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” I am not a big tattoo fan, but this one’s poignant irony makes me smile. “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” is the title and last line of one of my favorite poems by the great American poet, Robert Frost:
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s 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.
With his trademark deceptive simplicity, Frost adopts a very clipped, abbreviated rhythm and rhyme scheme to convey the powerful, somber truth that all of life and its pleasures are transient and that the permanence of life’s pleasures is an illusion. To make this point, he focuses our attention upon those first rich shades of green that color the new leaves of Spring as they bud, then burst forth, with new life. This “first green” is nature’s version of gold, the color and precious metal that in symbol and substance are the very essence of wealth and permanence. Frost reminds us that this golden bursting forth of life passes away as quickly as it came. Then, he surprises us with an even more evocative image of this somber truth: this state of transience and fading beauty is not our fate alone. It has been with us since that moment at the beginning of mythic time in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, and the primordial, ideal age of human innocence and natural perfection “sank to grief” as life was transformed into the painful, mortal reality that we experience every day. Just as dawn goes down to day, nothing lasts forever: nothing gold can stay.
I remark to the young woman, “What an interesting way to immortalize that Frost poem.” Thank you,” she says, “Many people who didn’t know what it referred to had asked me about it.” I tell her, “Frost would have been bewildered by his words finding their way onto a tattoo, but I think he would have felt honored as well.” Alas, like gold, no conversation can stay. The young librarian smiles in that wan, politely dismissive manner that young people smile when they want to tell older people, “Uh, OK, I gotta get back to work now. Go process your confusion about my tattoos with someone else from your generation.”
I let her get back to work, but the image of Frost’s immortal words about mortality etched on her shoulder have stayed with me. What a supremely ironic way of literally embodying the poem’s message about how all of life is impermanent: on the one hand, nothing gold can stay, but a tattoo is essentially permanent on your body, unless you undergo a very painful procedure to have it erased. On the other hand, that young woman’s body, like all of our bodies, will eventually die. Frost’s reminder of our mortality will ultimately be buried with her.
Nothing gold can stay. No one except God will live forever. From a Jewish religious perspective, recognition of this truth is one critical starting point for a balanced, ethical life of somber humility and joyous ambition. Let’s recall God’s conversation with Moshe about the rapid approach of his death, the prohibition against his entering the promised land, and the passing of his power to his successor, Joshua, all found in the biblical book of Numbers. God tells Moshe, “Aleh el Har Ha-Avarim, climb Mount Ha-Avarim, look out over the promised land of Canaan from its summit. You, Moshe, will not go there, because of how you failed to sanctify My name when you struck the rock to bring the people water.”
Note this strange name, Mount Avarim. Our teacher, the Ramban, points out that the name of the mountain was actually Mount Nevo, as recorded in the book of Deuteronomy. The root of the word Avarim is avar, to pass, pass through or transition. I imagine God telling Moshe, “You stand on this mountain of transition, look out over the land which you will not enter before your death, and you, great and humble leader, will understand that nothing gold can stay, nothing, including your leadership, can last forever.” We know, of course, that the Torah describes Moshe in a way that we would probably never apply to any other leader of great status: he is anav me-od mi-kol adam asher al p’nei ha-adamah, incredibly humble, more so than any other person on the face of the earth. Yet at that moment when he has to accept the finality of his life and the passing of his leadership, Moshe wants things to be different.
While the Torah is sparse in its assessment of Moshe’s desire to live on, our teacher, Rashi, fills in the details of his yearnings and his ultimate ability to pass the baton to Joshua. Rashi describes Moshe’s interior monologues: “Maybe God will relent and let me enter the promised land. Maybe God will allow me to pass along my leadership to my sons, Gershom and Eliezer, so that our family will rule as a dynasty.” But God has other plans. Moshe will not enter the land; he will stay at the border, his 40 years of efforts at bringing the people out of slavery and into freedom notwithstanding. Joshua, not Moshe’s sons, has been groomed intellectually, militarily and spiritually for the job of leading the Israelites. In Rashi’s capable interpretive hands, Moshe’s plea to God about the new leader’s qualities becomes a vision for a leader whose greatest quality is the capacity for balancing humility with ambition, personal concern for every person with bold leadership of the whole people.
Finally, Rashi points out an anomaly in the text we might have missed. God tells Moshe to lay one of his hands upon Joshua at his ordination ceremony as the new leader, a kind of transfer of Moshe’s God-given spiritual power to Joshua. By the time the ordination actually takes place, the Torah tells us, va-yismokh et yadav alav, Moshe places both hands upon his successor’s head. Rashi points out to us that Moshe does this with both hands, not just one, to indicate his genuine joy and enthusiasm, as he is happy to give Joshua the fullness of his charismatic gifts. After all, Moshe’s power does not belong to him, it belongs to God, and Moshe has been a mere vessel for it all along. Nothing gold can stay, but everything God can.
This lesson of Judaism is one that I wish every leader and political celebrity could hear. When all the preening, ego-fueled pissing matches and pseudo-celebrity photo ops are done, the next president of the United States will need to get down to the arduous, often anguished business of being the leader of the free world. There is a conventional argument that some of the greatest presidents have been the ones with the biggest egos, for they are the ones driven by the quest for greatness which fuels their vision and their political strategies.
This is true but it does not tell the whole story of great leadership; only the story of Moshe’s humble transfer of leadership to Joshua does. A truly great leader, no matter the size of his or her ego, recognizes that, in the end, leadership is not about that specific person, but about the greater common good that he or she serves. A truly great leader recognizes that he or she is a mere place holder, a temporary repository for the sacred trust of a people’s values, aspirations, and timeless qualities. A truly great leader recognizes that nothing gold can stay and that he or she will pass from the stages of power into the dusty indexes of history books sooner rather than later. These realizations are what liberate the greatest of leaders to do their greatest work.