December 10th 2010
The Dreidel Manifesto
“Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.”
- Ralf Waldo Emerson
What does world peace, global prosperity and the dreidel have in common? You’d be surprised.
One of the most recognized and well-known items of Judaism is the dreidel. Recently it has been the theme of a wildly popular song “Candelight” by the Maccabeats, having been featured on CNN, the Wall Street Journal, our own Chronicle Herald and has been viewed on YouTube almost 3 million times! More popular than ever, what exactly is the dreidel all about?
The dreidel seems to be a very simple and almost child-like toy for the Jewish people. A spinning top with a four letter acronym standing for “a great miracle happened there” is played to win chocolate or gelt. As with everything in Judaism however, there is a tremendous depth and wisdom for living, even in the dreidel.
Every year that the dreidel comes out to play, the Jewish people also read the story of Yosef in the weekly Parsha. The story is one of conflict between Yosef and his brothers. Yosef being a dreamer, youthful and open-minded while some of his brothers are the exact opposite. Shimon and Levi specifically being very inward, skeptical and against the outside world. Yosef inspires Egypt with his wisdom while Shimon and Levi attack Sh’chem. Two brothers, two different world views, one bitter conflict.
Shimon and Levi are so against Yosef that they keep themselves from killing him by selling him as a slave instead. 22 years later they meet again, and while the brothers do not recognize Yosef,
Yosef recognizes them. Yosef then arranges a situation where the brothers are tested in the same way that they failed 22 years earlier. Yosef puts a treasured goblet in Biynomin’s sack and says that he will be imprisoned, allowing the rest of the brothers to return to Israel. The brothers have changed and instead of leaving Binyomin as they left Yosef, they offer themselves to be imprisoned. Seeing this self-sacrifice and growth, Yosef reveals himself to his brothers in their utter shock.
The story concludes with Yaakov and the remainder of the family moving to Egypt to live under Yosef’s rule, wealth and success. Yaakov will live out his last years in happiness and ease, as the brothers have found compassion and peace.
“Pharoah said to Yosef, ‘Your father and brothers have now come to you. The land of Egypt is at their disposal. Settle your father and brothers in the best area, let them settle in Goshen…”
Genesis Vayigash, 47:5,6
The place where the family dwells is called Goshen. In fact, the word “Goshen” is mentioned over and over with a constant and almost superfluous emphasis. If every letter in the Torah has meaning, and no word is extra, then there must be a deep significance as to why Goshen is emphasized to such a degree.
Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech Shapiro (1783-1841, Dinov Galicia) explains the significance of the place Goshen. In his work the “Bnei Yissochar” he makes a brilliant and mind-blowing connection between Goshen and the dreidel.
You’ll remember that the four letter acronym for the dreidel is “N-G-H-SH” or nun-gimmel-shin-hey, standing for a “great miracle happened there”. These are the very letters of the place Goshen when it says that they went, “GoSHNaH”.
Goshen is the place of unity from conflict. It is the place where the brothers who are so different and in divide come together and live as one. Goshen is the place of reconcile, of calm, comfort and consolation.
If Goshen is the place of unity, then the dreidel is the device of unity. The dreidel has four corners when still, but one circle when spun. The dreidel is that which allows four different, separate and even conflicting corners to become one unified circle.
Rabbi Shapiro further explains that the numerical value of the four letters “nun-gimmel-shin-hey” add up to the same value as “Mashiach”, 358.
The Mashiach is the person in the world to bring about redemption. The redeemer of the Jewish people and existence from struggle to ease, from illness to health, from poverty to wealth. Heaven will not be a foreign idea, but a living experience on earth.
The wisdom in all this though, is that we don’t have to wait for all that to happen. Although it is a belief in Torah of world redemption, it is an even stronger calling to do it ourselves as best we can. This is the wisdom of the dreidel.
How do we deal with conflict? When someone is against us, if something doesn’t go the way we wanted, when anything is painful – how do we deal with it?
The most common mistake we all make in situations of crisis and difficulty is dwelling on the conflict, on the negative – on the four corners. Unhappiness, worry and complaint is an expression of a mindset that is centered on the negative. That choice is a mistake. The solution is to not to focus on the four corners but the unified central circle.
Yosef went through a horrific time through his initial arguments with his brothers, almost being murdered, years of slavery and prison. Yet he never complained. Not only did he not complain, he succeeded and every point! How did he maintain such an outlook?
Yosef embodied the dreidel. In all situations, after the initial and significant pain, he centered himself not on the problems, but the opportunity. The word in Hebrew for crisis is the same as a birth stool: for every time of pain exists an opportunity to learn, to grow, to be reborn. Yosef was always focusing and speaking to God – for God is the unity in the world.
Yosef was being spun from place to place, but he centered himself on God at all times. He had no anger towards his brothers and had no need for apologies because he saw the bigger picture. “Don’t worry or feel guilty…God has sent me ahead of you to save lives…it was not you who sent me here, but God.” (Genesis 44:5-8) At all times, he saw the circle, he saw God’s unity and presence and was living in a completely positive and happy way despite tremendous challenge.
This is why we spin the dreidel, this is why we have this story every year at the same time, this is why we’re alive.
Who knew? The dreidel, like all of Torah and all of life is more than meets the eye. The dreidel and Yosef teach us not to be still or stuck – but to spin, to move, to grow, to evolve and always see the unity and bigger picture. To see God in all things, to see good in all situations, to see opportunity for every challenge.
If we can uncover so much depth and meaning in a spinning top, imagine how much we can uncover in our own lives and relationships? Let us all continue to look deeper, to be deeper, to spin like dreidels. Good Shabbos!