Winter High

The wishes of “git vinter!” customary in some communities after Shemini Atzeres might put some people in mind of fall’s end weeks hence, and give them a chill. Not me.

I’m decidedly in the minority when it comes to the seasons of the year (as I am, as an aficionado of early morning, when it comes to the times of the day). While I’m thrilled with the onset of each new season, appreciating the changes that I didn’t fully experience during the several years I spent in California, winter is my favorite season.

Not that I like shoveling snow any more than anyone else. But there’s something about the rolling in of a massive cold front that —how can I say it? — warms my heart (if not my hands). To me, the frigid cold is exciting, inspiring. Besides, watching snow fall from a warm place through a window and running chilled hands under a warm stream of water are distinct pleasures of their own.

What’s more, winter is symbolic of childhood.

You didn’t know that? Neither did I, at least until I found the thought in the Maharal’s Gur Aryeh supercommentary on Rashi (Bereishis 26:34); it is also in his sefer Ner Mitzvah.

The Maharal assigns a stage of human life to each of the year’s seasons. We might naturally associate nature’s awakening in spring with childhood, the heat of summer with petulant youth, autumn with slowed-down middle age and cold, barren winter with life’s later years.

The Maharal, however, describes things differently. He regards autumn, when leaves are shed and nature seems to slow down, as corresponding to older age; summer’s warmth and comfort to represent our productive middle-years; spring to reflect the vibrancy and energy of young adulthood. And winter, to evoke… childhood.

It is certainly counterintuitive. Winter is, after all, stark, empty of vibrancy, activity and growth. Childhood is, or should be, full of joy, restlessness and development.

But the superficial image, in the Maharal’s mind, betrays the reality. When spring finally arrives each year, after all, the new leaves haven’t appeared suddenly out of nothingness. The buds from which they emerge have been developing for months; the sap in the seemingly dormant trees was rising even as the thermometer’s mercury was falling. The evidence of life that visibly presents itself only with the approach of Pesach was preparing its case since Chanukah. In the deadest days of deepest winter, bundle up and venture outside to look at the barren trees’ branches. You’ll see the buds, biding their time but clearly there, ready to explode with vibrant green life when commanded.

Winter, in other words, evokes life’s potential. And so, what better metaphor could there be for childhood, when the elements that will emerge one day and congeal into an adult are roiling inside a miniature prototype? When chaos and bedlam may seem to be the operative principles but when potential is at its most powerful? “The Child,” after all, as the poet William Wordsworth famously put it, is indeed “father of the Man.” Every accomplished person was once an unbridled toddler.

In fact, we humans are actually compared to trees in Devorim (20:19). Even though the passuk’s context (the forbiddance to gratuitously fell trees during war), at least according to Rashi, implies a quizzical question mark at its end (“Is a man a tree of the field?”), other Rishonim, like the Ibn Ezra, read the passuk as making a straightforward comparison. And the sifrei nistar similarly see significance in the plain meaning of the words. Man is, in some way, a tree of the field. There is sap rising in each of us, we all have leaves to put forth.

Sukkos is behind us; Chanukah, not so far off. When we put away the latter’s menoros and wicks, and winter progresses, we might find ourselves thinking about Tu BiShvat, a few weeks in the future; and then, the harbinger of spring, Purim, when we will celebrate the turning of a seemingly hopeless situation into a joyous one. Esther was a bud, and when the right time came, she blossomed.

We’re all buds, too, each of us in his or her own way. We all have potential yet to be realized. And winter, laid out in white before us, reminds us of that fact, of the Maharal’s lesson about the periods of the year — that much more important than what season of life we may think we’re in is the yet-unrealized potential we carry.