By Meni Even-Israel
In Biblical Israel, Jewish life was tethered to the agricultural seasons. Sukkot, the “Feast of Tabernacles,” was also known as Chag Ha’Asif, literally the “Feast of Ingathering,” and marked the year-end harvest festival. In addition to commemorating the end of Jewish slavery in Egypt, Passover doubled as a celebration of the springtime harvest, and Shavuot, the Chag Ha’Katzir, paid tribute to both the giving of the Torah and 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. While Yom Kippur provided an exalted moment in time for introspection and the realignment of priorities, the bleak and cold winter months set forth a physical and spiritual challenge: to create light in the darkness.
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 embraced the long, weather-enforced respite to consider 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, once-seasonal fruits becoming readily available year-round, and vacations of any kind being seen as a novelty, 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 feelings of happiness and personal well-being rapidly increase when one takes a break from the stresses of daily life, and 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 there are so few of us who have the time and money to make a long vacation a reality, and even fewer who are actually interested in (or capable of) disconnecting, no matter how much it would benefit our physical, mental and spiritual health.
While we may pride ourselves on our incredible productivity and connectedness, in reality, we are losing the war on time. Lacking proper rest and reflection, we are merely 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.
To be clear, this is not a new phenomenon. For decades, our society has been developing an addiction to constant engagement, an unhealthy preoccupation with work, news, and multimedia stimuli that has dampened our desire to seek out meaningful connections with other individuals and curtailed our appetite for introspection and self-discovery.
But winter is coming, and it’s time to reclaim it for our own good.
Just as the long winter nourishes the land, priming it for a bountiful spring awakening, it is our challenge and responsibility to embrace the Jewish “off season,” a period almost entirely devoid of holidays, to cultivate our spiritual sides. Instead of slogging through the dreariness and allowing one day to flow into the next for months at a time, we must integrate introspection into our daily routines and create light in the darkness. After thousands of years, 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 Tanakh every day or a page of Talmud throughout the course of the week (or one of the many other programs and curriculum developed by the Steinsaltz Center for independent and group study), 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 via textual analysis. The simple act of setting aside time to learn Torah (Kovei’ah Itim L’Torah) refocuses our lives and our priorities, reestablishing the very essence of the seasons in our hearts, minds and actions.
While we no longer have to spend the winter months huddled around a flame for the sake of physical warmth and light, it would serve us well as individuals and Jews to utilize the weather-enforced respite to find our own unique ways 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. By taking the time for contemplation, reflection and spiritual discovery, it can become a celebration of time well-spent and an incubator for true enlightenment.
Winter is coming, and the period of personal illumination awaits.
Rabbi Meni Even-Israel is the Executive Director of the Steinsaltz Center, a unique pedagogical accelerator that develops tools and programming that encourages creative engagement with the texts and makes the world of Jewish knowledge accessible to all.