In Appreciation of Winter
As a young boy growing up in Melbourne, Australia, fall was almost non-existent and winter only meant that I had to wear shoes when playing outside and, occasionally, a parka. It never snows in Melbourne, and a brutal winter day can sometimes go down to the mid-40s. Immediately after I finished high school (in December, the beginning of the summer in Australia) I left to learn in Yeshivas ITRI in Jerusalem, which is where I encountered my first “real” winter. I remember well my first snowball fight, when two students from Chicago defeated an entire mob of five Englishmen, two South Africans and one Australian (me). My initial reaction to winter was not positive: snow, ice and temperatures that only occurred in Australia inside refrigerators, were not amongst my favorite things.
I became more enamored with winter, however, as I matured, When winter arrives, the nights are longer and quieter. For people who study Torah, winter is a period when one can, and should, devote much more time to its study (Bava Batra 121b). In yeshivos, the longest semester is winter. It begins just after Sukkot and continues for five months (and in a leap year, six months!). I remember looking forward to the winter semester as a time when one could really accomplish a lot; finish a tractate, and/or study a particular area of Jewish law in depth and breadth. Five solid months of learning, with long cold evenings throughout, when all you want to do is stay inside and learn. For those not in yeshiva or not involved in Torah study, winter is still a more contemplative, meditative and thoughtful time of year than summer and spring. It is a wonderful time to nurture relationships with Hashem, with people, and with your own soul; on a winter’s night, you can hear yourself think.
Winter is also heavy with symbolism. Many scholars from medieval times to the present day, refer to their youth, as yemei chorfi, which means, “the days of my winter.” (Job 29:4; Ramban, Vayikra 19:20) Generally, in secular literature, youth is associated with summer or spring and old age is associated with winter (e.g. Shakespeare, Sonnets 94, 98). My rebbe, Rabbi Moshe Shapiro, ztz”l, explained the difference in perspective of secular literature and the Torah world. If one’s view of life is materialistic and one sees the purpose of life as harvesting the material benefits of the world, then the time when one can do that the best; eat more, consume more, be the most vigorous – is youth. So youth is harvest time – spring and summer. An older person is not a great “consumer” and so old age is compared to winter, when things are dormant, branches whither and dry out, not much happens – winter is a sad, pathetic time of year, and, of life.
On the other hand, if you look at life with a spiritual perspective then youth is winter. Winter is when plants, trees and animals are storing up energy, absorbing rain, snow-melt and nutrients and putting it away it up to bring forth fruit in summer. When spring and summer arrive, the buds will appear, the flowers will blossom and the fruit will grow. (Rosh Hashana 14a, Rashi ad loc.)
In the Torah’s perspective, old age is the time when the seeds that were watered during the winter of youth, will produce the fruits of life. We harvest the investments of our youth during our old age. Nachas is the fruit that is harvested during summer. Tzidkus and wisdom are the bounties that sprout forth in springtime. We see youth as “the days of winter” because that is not when we were busy “harvesting”, but when we were busy absorbing the nutrients of Torah, prayer and mitzvot. In old age we harvest, and hence it is summertime.