In Biblical Israel, Jewish life was tethered to the agricultural seasons. Sukkot was also known as Chag Ha’Asif and marked the year-end harvest festival; Passover doubled as a celebration of the springtime harvest; and Shavuot, Chag Ha’Katzir, paid tribute to the beginning of the wheat harvest.
Between these agricultural bookends, Jews locked up their silos and set down their plows, embracing the long winter as an opportunity for serious contemplation and reflection. Families huddled together around a single flame, recounting the successes of the harvest season and discussing how they might improve their yield in the coming year. At the same time, they considered how they might draw out their inner light in order to correct past social and spiritual gaffes.
Unfortunately, this paradigm is no longer the norm, as modern life has rendered the very concept of seasons virtually meaningless. With the majority of the population finding employment outside the world of agriculture, the average Jew struggles to connect to the significance of the harvest seasons or find meaning in the winter months between them. Tethered to mobile devices and tasked with providing for their families in a harsh economic climate, so many make no distinction between one day and the next, living life as an endless stream of workdays.
A research paper published in the Journal of Happiness Studies (Bloom, Geurts and Kompier, 2012) explains that happiness and personal well-being rapidly increase when one takes a break from the stresses of daily life. A quick vacation simply won’t do. According to the research, the human body needs at least eight days to disconnect, de-stress, and feel refreshed.
But so few of us have the time and money to take a long vacation, and even fewer are actually interested in (or capable of) disconnecting, no matter how much it would benefit us. We may pride ourselves on our incredible productivity and connectedness, but we are losing the war on time. Lacking proper rest and reflection, we have become automatons doing more work, rather than better work, slaves to a system that promotes mastering a defined set of task-specific skills, rather than original, independent and empowering thought.
But winter is coming, and it’s time to reclaim it for our own good. Just as the long winter – a period almost entirely devoid of holidays – nourishes the land, priming it for a bountiful spring awakening, it can also cultivate our spiritual sides if we embrace the opportunity it affords. Instead of slogging through the dreariness and allowing one day to flow into the next for months at a time, we can integrate introspection into our daily routines and create light in the darkness.
And it is clear that the ideal way to achieve this goal is by engaging with our core Jewish texts. Whether one chooses to delve into a chapter of Tanach every day or a page of Talmud throughout the course of the week, connecting with Jewish knowledge allows us to disengage from the world while simultaneously discovering our true selves as we explore our history, heritage, and traditions.
No matter the amount (even a single verse!), Torah study helps us reclaim the original spirit of the winter months, swapping our rigid schedules with the freedom of expanding our minds and plumbing the depths of our souls. The simple act of setting aside time to learn Torah (kovei’a itim l’Torah) refocuses our lives and priorities, reestablishing the very essence of the seasons in our hearts, minds, and actions.
We no longer spend the winter months huddled around a flame seeking physical warmth and light, but we should utilize the weather-enforced respite to connect with the written word and rekindle our passion for life. If we will it, the winter need not be bleak, dreary, and more of the same. It can be an incubator for true enlightenment.