Chanukah

Miracles and Dreidles

December 8, 2009

WHAT A MODEST, SPINNING TOP CAN TEACH US ABOUT MIRACLES

We live in an age of miracles and wonder.
Does that sound like a ridiculous statement to you – to characterize the age of the Internet, gene therapy, and biological science as an age of miracles? For many people, it does sound ridiculous. To their ears, I might as well be a visitor from the Medieval Ages, here to turn science on its head and usher in a decidedly less enlightened world view.

I ask you to trust me when I say that Judaism and I have the greatest regard for science. That said, I do not believe that a genuine and healthy respect for science precludes an embrace of miracles. Far from it. I believe that miracles do happen all the time. The “rub”, as Hamlet might have suggested, is with how “miracle” is defined.

A miracle is anything that “should not” happen in the logical, rational normal course of events. And God should have a hand in a genuine miracle. That said, a miracle is not fantastical. If we limit the things that constitute “miracles” to the “earth standing still” or events that run contrary to physical law, then we not only tarnish the laws that God has established for the physical world but we diminish our ability to see the miracles that play out in our lives everyday.

Over three hundred years ago King Louis XIV of France asked Pascal, the great philosopher of his day, to give him proof of the existence of miracles. Without hesitation, Pascal answered, “Why, the Jews, your Majesty. The Jews.”

History does not tell us the king’s reaction to this proof, but we do know exactly what Pascal meant by his answer because he explained it clearly in his masterwork, Pensees. In that work, he states that the fact that the Jewish people had survived even to his day was proof enough for him that miracles occur. After all, what rational explanation existed to make sense of our continued presence upon the world’s stage?

A more modern historian, Arnold Toynbee, wrote a ten-volume encyclopedia of human history. In the course of those many volumes the one thing that contradicted his “universal” rules that govern the inexorable decline of every people on earth was the continued flourishing of the Jewish people.

Only the Jews.

Despite history’s brutal attempts to destroy us, we have managed to defy all predictions and logical expectation of our demise.

Miraculous.

Just as we are able to look back and smile at the famous 1964 Look magazine cover that confidently predicted “The Vanishing American Jew” (Look magazine no longer exists!) we can look back in history with a rueful smile and note the fall of the powerful empires that worked mightily to ensure our demise – from the Akkadians to the Babylonians to the Persians to the Third Reich.

Jewish history – indeed, Jewish existence – defies rational explanation. We are a miracle.

The miraculous is so essential to who we are that David Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of the State of Israel, said, “A Jew who does not believe in miracles is not a realist.”

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The threats to our existence have come from external forces… and sometimes from within the Jewish community. As when we clamored to assimilate into Hellenistic culture during the early years of the Hellenistic Empire. It was only the “miracle” of Chanukah – and by that I mean a good deal more than the oil lasting a full eight days – that once again allowed us to survive as a dedicated people.

Yes, we had survived and we had achieved military victory over a much more powerful foe. However, it was not our military victory alone that constituted the miracle. There have been many improbable victories over time that were not miraculous. What makes a miracle a miracle, in addition to being an outcome that shouldn’t have happened, is the hand of God. Our miraculous victory at Hanukah teaches us little about military strategy and everything about ourselves and the world, but about God as well.

Without God, there is no miracle.

Which brings us back to our modest little dreidle. In its modesty, it teaches us a great deal about God. Just as the dreidle spins around a central point and topples when it begins to lose its connection to that point, so too do we begin to “lose our footing” when we begin to lose our connection to our center, to God.

The dreidle teaches us about our own psychologies. We are only “whole” when all the aspects of our being – body, mind, soul… hakol – are balanced and blended. When the dreidle spins, who can distinguish between each of the individual sides? No one! As we spin in perfect balance, on our central point, we are balanced and whole.

Perhaps most important, the dreidle teaches us these powerful lessons by being fun! The dreidle connects us through the liturgical year. The Chanukah dreidle spins from above (the stem is on top), teaching us that assistance and salvation come from God, unlike the Purim groegger which spins from below, teaching us that there are times when our help must come from within.

So, it is not the spinning alone that teaches us. It is something more. For on both Chanukah and Purim we Jews take pleasure in spinning objects. These objects needn’t be shining or beautiful in and of themselves. Each in its own way teaches us a valuable lesson of the holiday. And is not only young people who love to spin the dreidle at Chanukah or spin the groegger at Purim.

Spin, spin, spin.

But the two spinning objects are profoundly different. The one teaches us by how it lands and the other drowns out the cruelty of history. Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech Shapira, author of B’nei Yissaschar, explains the difference as follows: God wishes to constantly bestow only abundant blessing upon His nation, but we must initiate with an “inspiration from below.” If we create an opening the size of the “eye of a needle,” then God, in turn, will respond by “opening up the gateway to a large banquet hall.” (Shir HaShirim Rabba, 5:3)

All that God asks is that we take that first step – no matter how modest – toward behaving appropriately in the world and He will answer with such an outpouring of supernatural kindness that we will be astonished and our faith will be upheld and strengthened.

Even a small amount of Torah, repentance, and mitzvot, opens the gates wide, allowing boundless “inspiration from above” to come our way, inspiration which very often takes the form of miracles.

During the time of Antiochus, our prayer and repentance were not sincere. The people had assimilated. They were “as the Greeks” and so, in the beginning it was a mere handful of Hasmoneans leading the charge while most of our people failed to demonstrate the inspiration from below to earn God’s abundant blessing from above.

And yet God showered us with miracles. Despite the people’s lack of faith, He provided us, mercifully, with inspiration from above. His inspiration was undeserved – which made it all the more miraculous!

And so, the specific miracles arrived and we emerged victorious victors; we re-dedicated the grand Temple and lit a miraculously burning oil.

On Chanukah we spin dreidles upon which are inscribed the first letters of the words, “neis gadol ha’yah sham” – a great miracle happened there. (In Israel the letters on the dreidles spell out “neis gadol ha’yah po” – a great miracle happened here!) We rejoice with our dreidels, but we spin them specifically from their top part to constantly remind ourselves that Chanukah was a time when miracles came undeserved from God, when the Almighty bestowed His infinite compassion upon His people and things began to spin down to us in the form of undeniable miracles.

How surprising that the dreidle, silly top, should carry such weight – not only a theological truth and a statement about the role of the Jewish people in the miracle of Chanukah but also insight and knowledge into powerful historical dynamics. The Kabbalah, the compendium of Jewish mystical teachings, teaches us another aspect of the dreidel. In this understanding, the four letters do not represent a statement about God’s presence in the world – a great miracle happened there/here – but rather they each represent one of four different historical empires – Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman – that tried to destroy the Jewish people.

Four empires the likes of which the world had never seen. And the Jewish people? A relatively puny gathering of people dedicated to study and the performance of God’s command. Is it any wonder that, when given the opportunity, we seek to assimilate and become part of these “great” cultures and empires? But something always holds us back. Internally and externally, we are different. We are “like” but not the same.

So, against this backdrop of world history, are we simply spinning haphazardly from one tragedy to another? Or might there be some reason and meaning behind all the events that have punctuated our history?

The dreidle teaches us its lesson when we are facing times of hardship and tragedy. And that lesson? It is first and foremost, that God is our God and we are His people. And if we believe in that ultimate meaning of the Jewish people; if we know that despite the dizzying blur of events in our history there is some purpose to it all, and if we are prepared to fight to remain Jews regardless of what history throws at us, then who knows – we might just see a miracle and be reassured that there is a hidden hand guiding the destiny of the Jewish people.

Isn’t that the lesson in our modern state of Israel?

Some sixty years ago, for the first time since the Maccabees defeated the Greeks, the Jewish people were on the verge of reclaiming sovereignty in their homeland. Who in all the world believed that the birth of this new state would happen at all? And even if it should be born, the logical thinking was that it would quickly be extinguished by the much larger and far better equipped Arab armies.

In those early days, the Jews of Palestine built up an image of strength for political reasons. They had to convince a doubting world that they were capable of surviving the birth pangs of nationhood. Their image was so persuasive that even the Arabs were fooled.

How different the reality was from the image!

The fledgling Jewish army could barely arm a quarter of its men. It possessed a few thousand rifles, less than a thousand machine guns, and sufficient ammunition for only three days fighting. There were no heavy armaments of any kind – no heavy machine guns, no artillery, no anti-tank or anti-aircraft guns, no real armored cars.

No air force.

No navy.

That was the good news. On December 5, 1947, the United States government announced a total embargo on arms sales to the Middle East. By that time, the Arabs had already purchased tens of millions of dollars worth of U.S. arms surplus. The Jews had nothing but their anemic supplies and a dream.

They didn’t have a chance.

The rest, as they say in another well-worn quote, “is history.”

We Jews are a people of history, of time. God, whose name defines His nature as being outside of time, has entered time to save us, to establish and to reestablish His relationship with us.

That is the true miracle of our lives, that in the thicket of history, we can be lost for so long and then found again.

That is the miracle of the dreidle.

It is our story.

It is our history told on the sides of a modest little top, spun around in a child’s delightful game to celebrate the holiday of lights.
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Photo credit: Mishpacha Magazine / Shimon Gifter

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran serves as Vice President – Communications & Marketing of the Orthodox Union’s Kashruth Division. A more comprehensive treatment of the dreidle theme appears in his Meditations at Sixty – One Person, Under God, Indivisible KTAV Publishing House Inc. 2008. Rabbi and Mrs. Safran possess an extensive collection of dreidels displayed in their home.