Before the Festival of Lights starts to dim and go out, a parting thought…..
We live in the age of emojis. The popularity of this modern-day variation on “a picture is worth a thousand words” is no doubt a by-product of our all-too harried lifestyle. Despite all the time-saving devices we have invented in this futuristic Age of Technology, we never seem to have enough time to expand on our thoughts and converse at ease. So we dash off a picture, and hope the recipient gets the message.
But the trend isn’t a new one; Judaism has always been a religion of striking icons. The Magen David, the Ten Commandments, the lion of Judah, the map of Israel; all these instantly evoke our national emotions and represent us visually to the world at large. Each of our holidays, as well, has its own outstanding symbol: the Shofar of Rosh Hashana, Sukkot’s etrog, the masks of Purim, the Matza of Pesach. But Hanukka won the lottery with the 7-branched Menora of the Bet HaMikdash adopted as the primary symbol of the State of Israel.
Hanukka has another lasting image – the dreidel, that cute little spinning top with the letters “Nun, Gimel, Hay and Peh on its sides, which stand for “a great miracle happened here” (outside Israel, the Shin replaces the Peh, for the miracle which happened “there.)”
The popular legend surrounding this toy’s origin claims that the dreidel played an actual role in the Hanukka story. A key component of the Greek campaign against the Jews was to prevent us from studying the Torah, for it directly challenged the secularist, Godless agenda the Greeks sought to impose upon us. Yet despite the danger, Jews bravely continued teaching Torah to the children in the schools and learning centers. The Greeks would send soldiers onto the streets to try and find these schools and report any forbidden Torah teaching that might be taking place there. And so the Jewish children devised a clever ruse to protect themselves in case they’d be caught. They would keep the toys in their pockets, and if the guards suddenly showed up, they would pull out their dreidel and pretend to be innocently playing games of chance. The ploy seemed to work well, and we maintain this game until today in tribute to the courage of these “minor Macabees.”
Another theory, also centered around the children, is based on the idea that “Chanuka” connects to ”chinuch”- education. At this point in the year, schools are well underway, and so the dreidel game became a fun way to reward the good students at “mid-term” with “Chanuka Gelt,” and thereby encourage them to keep on studying (and also help train them for future visits to Las Vegas or Macau!). The rules are simple: each player puts money in the pot and spins the dreidel; the letters that come up then indicate what to do: Nun, stands for ”nisht” (the Yiddish words here hint where this game may actually have originated) and means you do nothing; Hay, or ”halb” means you take half; Gimel, or gantz
means you take it all. The Diaspora Shin stands for shteln, or “put in;” while the Israeli version’s Pey, means, well, you pay!
I want to suggest that beyond the simplicity of this kid’s game is a powerful message hidden in those letters. This world endlessly spins around and around, seemingly at random, as we are “dropped off” at various points. Some days our lives are routine and uneventful, where nothing of consequence seems to happen. At other times, we are met by decidedly good news or, it seems all too often, we “land on” some crisis and bemoan our fate. And then there are days that are “half and half – a mixture of both propitious and calamitous news.
This past year is a perfect example of the Hay. We’ve confront a pandemic that may end up killing two million people worldwide; the fear of contact with our fellow human beings has isolated us and confined us to our homes, as travel and tourism screech to a halt. Many have lost their livelihood and businesses, perhaps never to recover, and whole societies – particularly in the United States and Israel – are torn in half and hopelessly divided. Here at home, we worry from afar about the effect of the American election, while facing the spectre of yet another election of our own, with every possibility that we will emerge no less fragmented than we are today.
And yet, we have also been witness during the Year of Corona to miraculous blessings that awe and amaze us. Vaccines against Covid have been developed in record time, and soon millions will be inoculated. Even as our economy closed, the skies have opened wide and Israelis are flying to and above lands that were closed to us for decades, if not centuries. In the wink of an eye, some of our bitterest antagonists have become our closest friends and partners. We have seen Jerusalem affirmed as our eternal capital, and we have discovered new, creative ways to distance-educate and keep prayer and faith alive. We may be dejected, even depressed, but we have not been defeated.
It’s all so worrisome and wondrous at the same time, these changes coming at us with such dizzying speed, spinning our head around – like a top. Could it be that there is another hand, perhaps from above, twirling that little dreidel of life?