A Healthy Winter!

It is just after the festival of Sukkot and I am already feeling the onset of winter here in New Jersey.  There is a Yiddish greeting that people say after Sukkot, “Gezunta vinter,” “Healthy winter” which obviously anticipates the coming of the cold. Winter generally gets very bad press in the world as a whole. People talk about someone reaching the winter of his days, in other words, he is shriveling up and dying. Winter is the opposite of summer – a time of action and a time of fun, beaches and amusement parks and stuff like that. Summer is always good and winter is often considered in a negative light (unless you ski).

Winter, from a Jewish perspective, is not so bad, however, for a number of reasons.  Reason number one, the Talmud says, is when winter comes along, the nights are longer. Nights are the time when it is a little quieter, people are less active, they are not involved in work. Night is a time that we can devote to the study of Torah. So for people who study Torah, winter is a period when you can devote more time to the study of Torah. We feel the growth of a person spiritually, intellectually and emotionally through the study of Torah is of central importance, so we look forward to winter for that reason.

In the traditional yeshiva, the longest semester is always winter. It begins just after Sukkos and continues for five months and in a leap year, six months. I remember when I was student in yeshiva, we always looked forward to the winter semester because you could really get a lot of study done. Five solid months of study with long cold evenings, when you stay inside and study – a lot can be accomplished.

Another aspect of winter is the fact that the environment tends to be a little quieter.  If you are interested in contemplation, thinking, and meditation, winter is ideal.  If you are interested in nurturing relationships with people, with G-d and with your soul then a time which is quiet is ideal.

We find in the writings of many Jewish scholars that they refer to the days of their youth, as yemei chorfi, which some say means, the days of my sharpness. But, there are many who say, that it actually means, yemei chorfi  ‘my days of winter.” So they refer to youth as winter, which is interesting, because my impression is that the secular world youth is usually referred to as spring or summer and old age as winter. Why in Jewish tradition is it the reverse? One reason for this, given by the Maharal and elaborated upon by my teacher Rabbi Moshe Shapiro, is that if your view of life is material and the purpose of life is to harvest the material benefits of the world, then the time that you can do that, the time that you can eat most, the time that you can consume more, the time that you can do the most vigorous exercise and have the most fun etc… is youth. Because, that is harvest time, that is why you are here in this world. If you look at the world as materialistic, and the purpose of life is to harvest as much as you can from this material world then clearly harvest time, which is summer and spring, is youth. In winter, that is when you shrivel up and die, that is old age: a useless, pathetic time. But on the other hand, if you look at life from a little more of a spiritual perspective you see winter as youth, because winter is when things grow, plants are absorbing nutrients, energy, rain and snow melt. And when it comes to spring and summer, then the buds will come out, the flowers will come out and eventually the fruit will appear.

So Judaism looks at youth as a time of absorption, investment and growth. When do we harvest the investments of youth? We harvest in our old age. When person in their old age sees their children and grandchildren acting as decent human beings, marrying decent human beings, raising good families. That is when you are harvesting the fruits of your labor. So when we look at old age, we say that old age is harvest time. Youth is when you are planting.

Anyway, as they say in Yiddish, a gezunte vinter, everyone have a healthy winter.

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