Long nights are the hallmark of winter when most of our day is spent in the dark. Most people detest these long nights and look forward to the summer’s long days, but the truth is that there is something to be cherished in these vanishing long nights.
Long nights can be gloomy and depressing. The darkness caves in on us and provides no respite. The morning takes forever to arrive and before we turn around it is dark again. It almost feels like we spend the entire winter in the dark. But long nights have their own special quality. The extended spell of peaceful silence is a perfect opportunity to get stuff done.
During the long winter night, when the frost descends and everyone is tucked in, we bring out all the forgotten hobbies that we had no time to pursue during the action-packed summer. The sowing and knitting, the painting and writing, the books that we always meant to read, all emerge as we sit before the hearth and its cozy blaze. Long nights are not all bad. They have some silver streaks too.
Our sages wrote that night was created for study. The nighttime is when peace descends upon the house and people settle in to relax. The brain is too tired to contemplate rigorous activity, so the house tends to be calm. What better time is there for Torah study? The Talmud speaks of Rabbi Acha, who would study a daily quota. When he was too busy to complete his quota during the day, he would repay it at night.
Of course, there is a flipside. It is difficult to stay awake into the late hours of the night, but that is where the winter’s long nights come into play. The early advent and late departure of the night give us plenty of opportunities to study and to sleep.
What does one do during the summer? Well, in summer months the only option is to make up the time on Shabbat. Since Shabbat is a complete day of rest, one can study all day and a good portion of the night and thus make up for the time missed during the week. Moreover, just as one can make up for the summer week on Shabbat, one can make up for the summer months during the winter. If we are out late in the summer, taking advantage of the daylight, and have little time to study, we pay it back during the winter.
The key is to treat our Torah study as we would a loan. When we borrow money, we are duty-bound to repay it. If we can’t afford to repay it today, we must budget for it tomorrow. The same is true of Torah study. We did not come to the world to eat, sleep, work, and play. Those are things that we do on the side to enable us to do what we came to do. We came to study Torah and do Mitzvot. If we eat, sleep, work, and play so much that we have little time left for Torah—the purpose that these endeavors are meant to serve, we must pay G-d back.
It is best to pay Him back at night for loans that we took during the day. If we can’t repay that very night, we should repay it the next night or the next Shabbat. If we can’t repay it on Shabbat, we must repay it at the next Jewish festival which is also a day of rest. If we can’t pay it all back on the festival, we must take careful note of how many hours we owe and repay them during the long nights of the coming winter.
The long nights are not for naught. They are intended by G-d to be used for good purpose. Rather than dreading the upcoming long nights of winter, they are something to be anticipated with relish.
The Torah presents the festivals of the Jewish calendar in careful order. It begins with Shabbat, moves on to Passover, from there to Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and finally Sukkot. Once the Torah completes the annual cycle, it proceeds to outline the laws related to the daily kindling of the Menorah—candelabra—in the Temple. After this, the Torah addresses the showbread that was placed on the show-table every Shabbat in the Temple.
On the surface, there doesn’t appear to be a link between the festivals, the kindling, and the showbread. It seems that the Torah finishes with one subject and moves on to another. But in light of what we learned about the summer and winter dynamic, we arrive at a fascinating insight.
The Jewish festivals are centered around the harvest. Passover arrives when the grains are ripe, Shavuot arrives when the fruits are ripe, and Sukkot arrives when the harvest is packed into the silo for winter storage. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are not directly related to the harvest, but they do occur in the same time frame as Sukkot.
In our hemisphere (more importantly, the Israeli hemisphere) these festivals all fall during the summer season when the days are long, and the nights are short. During this time, we incur lots of Torah study debt as we busy working during the long days. This was especially true in the agrarian culture of ancient Israel, when most people worked the fields at a frenetic pace to get everything done in time.
The Torah, therefore, begins with Shabbat to remind us that if we fall behind during the week, we should repay what we owe on Shabbat. The Torah then speaks of the festivals to remind us that if we were unable to repay all the hours during Shabbat, there are many special holidays during the summer when workdays become rest-days that allow us to catch up on our debt.
If the festivals have finished and we still find ourselves behind, the Torah tells us to kindle our lights. The long nights of winter are coming, the silos are packed, the work is done, and we now settle in for the quiet winter season. Don’t while this time away; utilize it to study Torah. This is not just a time to catch up on the novels you wanted to read. It is also a time to choose a subject and study it until you have mastered it. The nights were created for Torah study. Long nights are coming, says the Torah, kindle your menorah.
The Menorah represents more than physical light. King Solomon wrote, “the Mitzvah is a candle and the Torah is light.” When the Torah tells us to kindle the menorah it doesn’t only mean to light a candle so you can study Torah. It also means to light the candle of the Torah. Study the Torah and illuminate the world with the knowledge that you amass by teaching it to others.
After this, the Torah addresses the showbread. The showbread had a special property. If you ate just a tiny bit, you were fully satiated. The message is that the winter is not only perfectly suited for Torah study because of the long nights, but also because our silos are full, and we have food for our table. To fill our silos, we have borrowed in the summer against the winter. Now that they are full, it is time to repay.
Our sages wrote, “if there is flour there is Torah and if there is Torah there is flour.” By this they meant, if you have food on your table, you can study Torah without anxiety and if you study Torah without anxiety, G-d will ensure that you have plenty of food on your table. No matter how much money we have, it can be enough or not depending on the unexpected expenses that we incur. By addressing the showbread after the Menorah kindling, the Torah gives us a dual message. We can study Torah because we have plenty of bread and whatever bread we have will suffice because we are studying Torah. G-d will smile upon us and ensure that we have what we need, and we will have no reason for concern.