I was playing the game of dreidel, as we do every Chanukah, when someone asked what it actually means. I wasn't sure what to say, apart from being a fun way to spend time with the family during the holiday, and a kosher way to gamble away your savings. But I guess there's more to it... is there?
Toys don't play a major role in Jewish tradition. I can only think of two Jewish toys that are used religiously (unless you count iphones). On Chanukah we spin the dreidel, and on Purim we shake the gragger. The dreidel is a spinning top used in a game of chance. The gragger is a noisemaker that serves to heckle the wicked Haman, the enemy of the Jews, every time his name is mentioned in the Purim story.
But even toys have deeper meaning in Judaism. The dreidel and the gragger encapsulate the difference between the miracles of Chanukah and Purim.
When Haman stood to annihilate the Jewish people, it caused a mass stirring of emotion and spiritual introspection. The Jews knew that such a decree could only be averted if they changed their ways. And so they prayed, fasted, and recommitted themselves to Judaism. This awakening was the catalyst for the miracle that followed, with Haman's downfall and the Jewish victory over their adversaries.
In the story of Chanukah things were very different. The threat posed by the Hellenists did not inspire mass repentance among the Jews. On the contrary, many Jews of the time welcomed the Syrian-Greek occupation of their land and were happy to assimilate into their culture. Only a small band of rebels stayed true to their beliefs and fought the foreign invasion. And yet, a miracle occurred for the Jewish people, totally undeserved, not earned, a gift from above, and the Hellenists were routed from the Land of Israel.
So Purim is a miracle that was initiated from below, from the people and their spiritual turn around. Chanukah was a miracle that the people had not earned but came completely from above, from G-d.
And so on Chanukah we play with the dreidel, which we spin from on top, symbolizing the divine hand that intervenes from above to spin the wheels of history. On Purim, the miracle we earned from below, we shake the gragger, which is grasped from below.
This is the power of Chanukah, the miracle we didn't deserve. Chanukah is a time where G-d's light can reach the darkest of places, and we can all be blessed, worthy or not. Because sometimes G-d rewards us for the good we have done, and at other times He blesses us for the good we will do. G-d is spinning the dreidel, and on Chanukah we know it will fall in our favour.