Winter is rapidly approaching, and I am patiently waiting for a few dry days so that my Sukkah boards will dry out. Personally, I don’t like winter, and I don’t enjoy the snow, however, from a Jewish perspective, winter isn’t really so bad. One reason that we are positive about winter in traditional Jewish thought is due to the fact that when winter arrives the nights are longer. Nights are the time when it is a little quieter, people are less active, and 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 where one 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 traditional yeshivas, 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 a 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 positive aspect of winter is 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 those who translate this phrase as ‘my days of winter.” So they refer to youth as winter, which is interesting, because my impression is that in 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, OBM, 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 the fruits in our old age. When an older person sees their children and grandchildren acting as decent human beings, marrying decent human beings, raising good families. That is when he is experience harvest time, summer.