The Winter of Our Youth
Here in New Jersey it is cold and windy outside, snow is predicted for this week. We have truly entered winter. Winter usually gets very bad press in secular literature and popular culture. 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 – summer is a time of action and fun, a time of going to the beach and amusement parks etc. Summer is often used as a metaphor or symbol of goodness and winter as a symbol of the opposite.
In Jewish tradition we really like winter. First of all, as the Talmud points out, 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 the Jewish people we have looked at winter as a fantastic opportunity to devote more time to the study of Torah. That is an amazing perspective. We feel that the growth of a person spiritually, intellectually and emotionally through the study of Torah is more important than playing video games, surfing or going to the beach. Even though recreation is important, even though people need relaxation, but on the other hand, the important business of life, becoming a better person, is so important that we look forward to winter for that reason alone.
In the traditional yeshiva or the tertiary institute for study of Torah, the longest semester is always winter. It goes from the month of Cheshvan for five months and in a leap year, (when the Jewish year has an extra month) the winter semester has six months. I remember when I was student in yeshiva, we always looked forward to the winter semester because you could really accomplish a huge amount in that time. Five, sometime six, solid months of study when during the long cold evenings, you stayed inside and studied.
Another aspect of winter is the quieter nature of that time. If you are interested in contemplation, thinking, meditating a bit; if you are interested in creating relationships with people, with G-d, and with your own soul, then a time which is quiet is a much better time for that than a time that it is noisy and very active.
Finally, we find that in traditional Jewish literature, great sages refer to the days of their youth, as yemei chorfi, which is sometimes translated as “the days of my sharpness,” but is usually translated as “the days of my winter.” So they refer to youth as winter, which is interesting, because in secular literature, youth is usually associated with spring or summer and old age is associated with winter. Why is this so? 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 love the most, the time that you can do the most vigorous exercise and have the most fun etc… is youth. So youth is harvest time, summer and spring. Winter is when things shrivel up and die, old age. On the other hand, if you look at life from a little more of a spiritual perspective you perceive youth as winter; because winter is when things grow, when potential lies dormant, absorbing the energy, absorbing the nutrients, absorbing the snow melt. And when it comes to spring and summer, then the buds will come out, the flowers will appear and eventually fruit will be produced.
In Judaism we view youth as a time of investment and planting. A time to absorb nutrients and to begin growth. When do the nutrients of youth really flower? When do we harvest what we planted in youth? We harvest in our old age. When a person in his older years sees his children and grandchildren acting as decent human beings; when she sees her children and grandchildren marrying and creating beautiful families, that is harvest time, that is summer.