Ever since we’ve been little, it’s been a time-tested tradition: If we land on Shin we put one in. Got a Hei? Take half the winnings. Nun? No loss, no gain. And of course, things get really crazy when we land a Gimel. All those pennies in the middle? They’re ours now.
Okay, so what’s going on? Where is the Dreidel from? What’s really its purpose? Does it have a deeper meaning? The goal of this essay is not to explain the rules of the game, we’re trying to figure out what the Dreidel is telling us.
(Warning: We will not talk about Neis Gadol Haya Po - A great miracle happened here. Po is a marketing scam. The correct version is the Shin of Sham - ‘there’. We will explain the tremendous importance of this.)
Our journey begins with the Maharal’s understanding of this world as a whole. The Torah begins, Bereishis Barah Elokim Es HaShamayim V’Es HaAretz - in the beginning God created the heavens and the land. V’Ha’Aretz Haisa Tohu Va’Vohu V’Choshech Al Pnei Tihom - And the land was abysmal and empty and their was darkness upon the surface of the deep.
Chazal tell us that these four descriptions of the world are really hints to the four exiles. ‘Abysmal‘ means Babylon. ‘Empty’ means Persia. ‘Darkness’ is a reference to Greece, and ‘Deep’ is the final exile, from Rome until today.
But the verse isn’t over, “V’Ruach Elokim Mirachefes Al Pnei HaMayim” And the spirit of Hashem hovered over the surface of the waters. This, Chazal tell us, is a reference to the spirit of Mashiach, the force of Tikun Olam which permeates through the length of history.
But Why? Why does the Torah jump right into exiles the moment the universe is formed? Was there any sin done? And more, even if we say that the journey of the exiles is a necessary process; why did Hashem give us specifically four?
If we look at the verses carefully, we will pick up an important nuance. The Torah began by telling us that Hashem created the heavens and the land. But then the Torah tells us that the land - not the heavens – was abysmal and empty.
From this we learn an important rule. All the emptiness, dispersion and astonishing darkness is relevant down here, not in the higher realms of existence.
Chazal tell us that the Next World was created with the letter Yud. On the other hand, this world was created with a Hei. Let’s take a moment to explore what this means.
A Yud is in no way connected to the ground. On the contrary, it floats. The Yud is a simple entity which can’t be broken down into smaller components. Therefore the letter Yud represents unity. In the supernal and celestial levels of reality there is no challenge to God’s unity – Hashem’s reign takes the form of a Yud - eminent and undisturbed.
This world, where things become material, the whole game changes. Because with the advent of tangible physicality there is an inherit challenge to Hashem’s unified dominion. Even though we know this to be false, physical objects seem to take on an identity separate from their Creator. Because material objects don’t have an outright “Made By God” stamp on them, it’s easy to think that they have of a life of their own.
When things leave the stage of supernal unification and enter into physical corporeality they disperse into four. Four hemispheres, four directions, four winds, four corners of the world – call it what you want. Even in Bereishis when the Torah tells us about the transition from the Garden of Eden to the mundane world the Torah tells us that the Garden’s influence enters into the world via four rivers. When faced with which way to go, my choice will always be some permutation of forward, back, left, or right. In short, four is the dispersion of physicality.
But even though all things physically express themselves by spreading into four directions, there is a fifth point as well; the point in the center, giving the other four context. My friend might to be my left and the wall to my right, but we are both left of the wall, and both the wall and myself are to the right of my friend. Left and right are relative to what is center. The point in the middle always establishes the context of the four directions.
This is why Chazal told us that this world was created with a Hei. Hei is comprised of two parts. The bigger outer portion of a Hei is really a Daled with the numerical value of four. The smaller, internal part of the Hei is really just a Yud that is now resting on the ground.
The manifestation is clear. The Yud in its natural levitating state, as we said before, is God’s rule. But when that Yud reaches this world, when it rests, a Daled emerges from it and surrounds it. Daled which has the numerical value of four, shows us that all the dispersion of physicality is really surrounding the fifth point of context – which is the Yud - Ratzon Hashem.
Now we understand why the Torah starts to tell us about the exiles as soon as it begins. Because once there is a physical universe, which is on some level separate from God, the four angles of dispersion each take on their ‘personality’ – their own unique way of challenging God’s total control. The Torah is teaching us that the evil empires that contest Hashem’s dominance are a natural result of the universe’s existence.
The Maharal tells us what these four challenges are. Bavel, the first exile challenges our Nefesh. They challenge our souls by destroying the first Beis HaMikdash. After the Babylonians, we were exiled by the Persians, who sought to destroy our Guf, our bodies. Haman’s task was nothing more sophisticated than mass murder. The Greeks challenged our Sechel, our minds. Hellenism, Philosophy and the like were attempts to impurify the sanctity of Jewish culture, this time without any threat to our bodies. Lastly, Edom from whom we suffer from today, attacks us with HaKol - everything. The empire of Edom in its various forms and stages has tried to decree against our religious practice, kill us and defile our minds and hearts.
When physicality comes into being there will always be four challenges to overcome: Nefesh, Guf, Sechel and Hakol.
An amazing teaching of the Bnei Yisachar will bring everything back to our topic.
All things have their root, and even the four exiles had a prototype and that was the Jews’ stay in Egypt. Before the Jews went down as a unit, Yaakov Avinu sent Yehudah down to establish a town where the Jews would be able to live together amongst the Egyptians. When Yaakov sent him down, he told Yehuda to go Goshna - towards the city of Goshen. Goshna would be the center-point, a place where Jews would be together, even when surrounded by a super-force like Egypt.
Goshna is a microcosm for the Jews throughout history. A small beacon of Ratzon Hashem that shines through the Galus, slowly bring out the holiness that is hidden in the deepest and farthest places.
Goshna is comprised of four letters: Gimel Shin Nun and Hei, standing for Nefesh, Guf, Sechel and HaKol. Because even in the midst of the four powers that seek to challenge Ratzon Hashem there will always be a interior point, the Yud that rests on the ground, the contextual centerpiece that drives the whole thing towards the eventual goal of unifying all the dispersion - and that is the Jews.
The role of the Jews is to be the undoing of this dispersion. When we are ingathered from the four corners of the world it marks the downfall of the empires that challenge God’s unity.
This is the Dreidel. The Dreidel has four sides, with four letters - Nun, Gimel, Shin and Hei representing the inherit dispersion physicality and its challenges to God’s rule.
Chazal teach us that the Jews were playing with the Dreidel way before the story of Chanukah. When I look at the Dreidel, with its four letters I see exile. I see the distracting nature of all material things. But when those four sides begin to spin around the center point – the square becomes a circle.
A circle is unity - V’Na’aseh Kulam Agudah Achas La’asos Ritzonecha! ‘And make of them all one group – bound together to do Your Will.’ We say at the end of Messeches Ta’anis that in the world to come all of the righteous will sit in a circle to enjoy the presence of Hashem.
Spinning the square undoes all of the dispersion. The four sides of the Dreidel are undone when we see how everything revolves around the center-point – the Jews. That point on which the Dreidel spins is the Jews in Goshna surrounded by Egypt – eventually being the source of Egypt’s downfall.
For generations Jews have stared at the Dreidel and have taken the same message. It is our job to be the undoing of all of the dispersion. To take all the sqaures and make them circle. We are the center-point that will take the four exiles and nullify them.
B’Ezras Hashem we should be Zocheh to constantly uncover the Ratzon Hashem that is contained in every object to see the Hei that this world was created with and see past its Daled and access its Yud. Through this, there is no doubt that we will live lives of Simcha and Shleimus moving closer to HaKadosh Baruch Hu and eventually the Geulah!