Observations on simplicity as Hanukkah draws to a close

Beyond the simplicity of this kid’s game is a powerful message hidden in the Nun, Gimel, Hay and Peh / Shin of the dreidel.

A great miracle happened here: families actually sit and play dreidel together! (photo credit: STEWART WEISS)
A great miracle happened here: families actually sit and play dreidel together!
(photo credit: STEWART WEISS)
Before the Festival of Lights starts to dim and go out, some parting thoughts.
We live in the age of emojis. The popularity of this modern-day variation on “a picture is worth 1,000 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 (Star of 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 Hashanah, Sukkot’s etrog, the masks of Purim, the matzah of Passover. But Hanukkah won the lottery with the seven-branched menorah of the Beit HaMikdash adopted as the primary symbol of the State of Israel.
Hanukkah 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, a Shin replaces Peh, for the miracle that happened “there”).
The popular legend surrounding this toy’s origin claims that the dreidel played an actual role in the Hanukkah 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 Maccabees.”
Another theory, also centered around the children, is based on the idea that “Hanukkah” 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 “Hanukkah gelt,” or money, 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, when 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 confronted a pandemic that might 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 livelihoods 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 specter 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 this year of corona to miraculous blessings that awe and amaze us. Vaccines against COVID-19 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? 
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana.
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