We call it the Festival of Lights, but Chanukah starts in a very dark place.
It begins with two stories, each very serious. One tells of a severely outnumbered band of Jews who fought a powerful enemy for religious freedom. And there's the other, even more painful tale of Jew vs. Jew, of the Macabees struggling with widespread Jewish assimilation into the culture and religion of that enemy. In many ways, Chanukah represents the most painful aspects of Jewish history, in one full account: the Jewish community facing threats both from outside and within.
The tales are so painful, in fact, that thinking about them can be depressing. And what's worse, many aspects of Chanukah -- bloody battles, inner fighting, treacherous choices between life and death -- have been reenacted over and over again, throughout the centuries.
But despite the seriousness, despite the painful, dark history of Chanukkah, we spend eight days in lightness. We play, we sing, we eat -- we remember the tales of the Macabees with latkes, gelt, songs and games. For us, Chanukah is a party -- bright, sweet, joyous.
It's serious, but we're playful. The stories -- dark and sobering -- are recalled with light and celebration. How do the bloody battles of Chanukah translate into a ritual of fun?
The answer can found in the dreidel.
The Hebrew letters on each side of the toy -- nun, gimmel, heh, and shin -- famously serve as an acronym for neis gadol haya sham -- "a great miracle happened there" -- a reference to the miraculous eight-day staying power of the little bit of oil lighting the menorah in the Holy Temple when it was re-taken by the Macabees.
Like Chanukah itself, the dreidel is a combination of intensity and lightheartedness. Historically, it was initially adopted by Jews not as a game or toy, but as a front, a ruse used by persecuted Torah scholars who were forbidden by non-Jewish authorities from study. Pretending to play a game, rabbis would actually teach their students Torah, enabling the traditions to be passed to each new generation. How fitting then, to have those same toys in the hands of happy, free Jewish children today, spinning the dreidel as a simple game after learning Torah in security. The dreidel represents that same relationship between terror and confidence, between threats and joy, darkness and light.
The spinning top is actually even more than just a reminder of persecutions past, and more than a simple game for happy children. The Jewish mystical tradition teaches that the four letters on the sides of the dreidel have a wholly different significance. The nun is for neshama (soul); the gimmel is for guf (body); the shin is actually a sin, for sechel (mind); and the heh is for ha-kol (everything).
The playful little toy is a miniature, but complete person: body, mind, and soul -- everything wrapped up together. And like the dreidel, we are also a combination of the playful and the serious. On one hand, we are light and fun and lively. But on the other hand, we spin out of control. We live in chaos. A human being is a dreidel: busy, moving. We reach near-vertigo, tilting and spinning until at last we finally drop. Like the Chanukah tales, our personal narratives are marked by difficult choices and numerous battles, both external and internal. A human being is a dreidel: spinning and falling, spinning and falling.
Yet we come up, again and again. How can that be?
Because, as the dreidel tells us: neis gadol haya sham. Great miracles happen, not just in ancient times, but now, constantly, for us, every single day. We spin and fall, but thanks to God's miracles, we stand up to try again -- as a nation and as individuals. That's serious stuff. But it's also worth celebrating.