A favorite Chanukah tradition and pastime is playing with a spinning top called a “dreidel”. The letters on the dreidel, “nun”, “gimmel”, “hey”, and “shin”, stand for “nes gadol haya sham”, which means “a great miracle happened there”. The word “there” in this phrase refers to the land of Israel. Dreidels in Israel replace the letter “shin” with a “pey” for “poh”, which means “here”. The miracles of Chanukah include our military victory against the Syrian-Greeks and the subsequent re-dedication of our Temple, as well as the oil that burned in the menorah for eight days and nights when there was only enough to last for one day.
On Chanukah, as opposed to any other holiday, we are explicitly charged with the task to “publicize the miracle”, which is accomplished by lighting the menorah for eight nights. However, Chanukah is not our only holiday with associated miracles. For example, on Passover we remember how God redeemed us from slavery in Egypt with open miracles such as the ten plagues and the splitting of the sea. On Shavuot, God gave us the Torah in a mass national revelation in which the entire people heard His voice and saw His wonders. Why is Chanukah singled out for this purpose of “publicizing the miracle”?
Chanukah occurs in the winter season, a time of year when nightfall is earlier and there are more hours of darkness than there are of daylight. Nighttime and darkness symbolize times in our lives when events and occurrences seem random and arbitrary, when God’s hand is not so apparent and we may question if He is even there. Chanukah reminds us that even in these times of darkness, there is light, and we need to see and acknowledge the blessings and miracles God performs on a regular basis. As King David beautifully expressed:
It is a good thing to give thanks to Hashem, and to sing praises unto Your name, O Most High;
To declare Your lovingkindness in the morning, and Your faithfulness in the night seasons.
It is hard to have faith in the night, and it is easy to attribute success to our own efforts. Regarding the Chanukah miracles, our military victory and re-dedication of the Temple are the only ones mentioned in the daily inserted prayer of Al HaNissim, yet we also remember the miracle of the oil with the lighting of the menorah. Without the revealed miracle of the oil, it would be too easy to rationalize our military victory as being due to battle strategy or other human causes. The miracle of the menorah serves to anchor the reality of God’s role in helping us overcome our enemies in battle against all odds.
It may seem as though God is hidden, but in fact we are still living our history and destiny. Our modern Chanukah victory is the 1948 War of Israel’s Independence. Instead of accepting the UN partition plan as Israel did, five Arab armies attacked the new state of Israel. As with Chanukah, the battle was a case of the few against the many, the weak against the strong, and amazingly, Israel prevailed and won. We recognize the miraculous nature of Israel’s independence with the celebration of Yom Haatzmaut, when added prayers of thanksgiving are recited in acknowledgment of God’s role in Israel’s founding.
The phrase alluded to by the letters on the dreidel, “a great miracle happened there”, can clearly be said in reference to the miracle of Chanukah as well as the miracle of Israel’s establishment and continued existence. Indeed, the following excerpt from the Chanukah prayer of Al HaNissim is equally relevant to Israel:
You, in Your abounding mercies, stood by them in the time of their distress. You waged their battles, defended their rights, and avenged the wrong done to them. You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few […] You made a great and holy name for Yourself in Your world, and effected a great deliverance and redemption for Your people Israel to this very day.
May we continue to merit to see many miracles and blessings in our lifetime, both on a personal and global scale. May the publicizing of the miracle of Chanukah with the light of the menorah serve as a reminder that even a small amount of light can dispel much darkness.