The dreidel 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 dreidel 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 dreidel teaches us these powerful lessons by being fun. The dreidel spins from above (the stem is on top), teaching us that assistance and salvation come from God, unlike the Purim grogger 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 shiny 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 dreidel at Chanukah or spin the grogger at Purim.
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, explained 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 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 that 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, rededicating the grand Temple and lighting a miraculously burning oil.
On Chanukah we spin dreidels on which are inscribed the first letters of the words “nes gadol ha’yah sham” – a great miracle happened there. (In Israel, of course, the letters spell out “nes 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 dreidel, 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.
Kabbalah 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 people dedicated to the study and the performance of God’s commands. 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.