The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah begins tonight at sundown. There are still many non-Jews who don’t know much about Hanukkah. I think it’s fair to say the president elect is one of these people. I’ll wager that Donald, like many people, thinks of Hanukkah as the “Jewish Christmas” because it happens each year about the same time and involves lighting candles and presents. Perhaps Trump even knows about dreidels, the spinning top used to play a game of acquisition. A game of acquisition. Kind of like real estate or politics.
In case Trump (or others) don’t know them, a quick review of the basic rules. For people who have trouble reading more than 140 characters at a time, here’s a one-minute video explaining how to play.
So, any number of people can play. You can play dreidel with three people or a dozen or hundreds or millions. The more people the bigger the pot. Most dreidels are relatively small, which is makes this a good game for people with tiny hands.
The game begins with each player having the same amount of pieces. You can play with M&Ms or nuts or poker chips or even money. Many people use pennies or nickels or dimes or quarters but you can use Benjamins if like Donald, you have enough of them to throw around. Notice how everyone starts out with the same amount. I know, I know, this smacks of socialism, but the game only ends when one player gets all the spoils. I’m sure Donald will like that part.
At the beginning of the game, each player puts one piece in the pot.
Players take turns spinning the dreidel. The dreidel has 4 sides, each with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet on it. The result of the player’s turn depends on which of the 4 letters lands face up. The 4 possibilities are:
NUN = nisht = nothing. Sorry you lose. You get nothing. This is what will happen to many people now that Donald will be president.
SHIN = shtel = put in. This is worse than nothing. This means you add to the pot. This is what will happen to some people under the Donald administration. The rich will get more, but those who can least afford to lose what they have will end up with even less. It’s a good thing Donald has practice not putting anything into the common pot.
HEY = hab = half. This means you win half of what’s in the pot. This is like the current situation where 400 of the richest people like Donald own as much as half of the American people as a whole.
GIMMEL = gantz = EVERYTHING. This means you get the entire pot! It’s what Donald likes. All for one and none for all. My favorite theologian, Bruce Springsteen, writes about this: “Poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king, and the king ain’t satisfied ‘till he rules everything.” Gimmel sounds great, but Hannukah has a lesson for those who get hung up on ruling everything.
You see, just like the real story of Christmas isn’t about trees and Santa Claus and presents, the real story of Hanukkah isn’t about dreidels and presents. Hanukkah means dedication and it celebrates the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem after a Greek king in Syria desecrated it.
In 167 BCE (that’s Before the Common Era), there was a king in Syria named Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Epiphanes is a strange name. Christians, although I imagine not Donald, may know of it in relation to Epiphany, the celebration of the Three Kings visiting the baby Jesus and celebrating that in Jesus God is made manifest. That’s what Epiphany means, Manifestation of God. Think about it, that’s what the king called himself, Manifestation of God.
Anyone who goes by the name Epiphany has to be very full of himself and this guy was no exception. Like many people who are full of themselves, he had a violent temper. For years the Greek rulers in Syria left the people of Judea alone to worship their God, but when Epiphanes got word of an uprising, he ordered a ruthless response and killed or sold into slavery anyone who opposed him. He outlawed the practice of Judaism. He trashed the temple and insisted the Jewish people worship the Greek gods. He put up a statue of Zeus in the temple.
In case Donald might think of this guy Epiphanes as a role model, it is important to note that some people refused to back down and stood up to the big bully. Led by a guy named Judas Maccabeus, the Jewish people revolted and successfully took back the temple and their country. After defeating the Greeks, they wanted to rededicate the temple, they could only find one small vial of oil to light the candles, but the very tiny amount oil lasted 8 days. This miracle of oil and rededication is what the Hanukkah celebration is all about. Hanukkah is an example of what happens when rulers get too full of themselves.
I know Donald will dismiss this lesson. If he’s following along at all, he probably zoned out at gimmel. But there’s always hope a miracle can occur there with Donald.
And for the rest of us, let’s keep lighting the lamp even though the fuel is scarce. Let’s trust the light will return and last longer than expected.