This is a version of a D’var Torah I've given in many variations over the past few years.
I’ve come to think about a lot of things in life in terms of “portfolio management.” People talk about investment portfolios –long-term and short- term, stocks and bonds. I think Chanukkah can teach us creating a hope portfolio. Chanukkah is a story that begins with hope – how this group of Jewish rebels somehow kept going, when they were up against an empire that wanted to squelch Judaism, and when they had to face people in their own community ready to give up and sell out or sell off.
But hope isn’t always like that – impossible odds, yet you win anyway. That’s one scenario of hope paying off. But I think Chanukkah teaches us about a whole hope portfolio that is essential to our spiritual wellbeing. I get my hope portfolio not from some expert with a technologically sophisticated algorithm, but from a very simple device: the dreidel, with its four sides, its four symbols. Each one represents a certain kind of hope, and together as a portfolio they keep us in the right balance.
The way the dreidel game works is that you’ve got a pot of M&Ms in the middle (better yet little wrapped Fair Trade chocolates) and you take turns spinning the dreidel. If it lands on Gimel you get everything. Hay, you take half. Shin, you put something in. Nun, nothing happens.
To me, these are four different kinds of hope. Gimel hope, Hay hope, Shin hope, Nun hope.
Gimel is when you get everything in the pot. Gimel stands for gadol, great or large. Gimel hope is going for broke, hoping and praying for everything, and actually getting it. Gimel hope is the final definitive cure from an illness. It’s seeing someone you love come out of a rough phase of life and seem happy again. It’s when a neighborhood in an American city or a village in the developing world that had been mostly poor is transformed, through schools and solar power and clean water.
It’s when all the hostages are released, and the fighting ends, and a vision of peace becomes a reality.
Gimel, the great miracle, doesn’t always happen. But when it does, it means that the world or life is exactly the way we dream it should be. If there weren't some Gimel in the world, we could never hope at all. It’s the Gimel every so often that keeps us going. When the world as it is suddenly crosses with the world that we know is supposed to be.
When the dreidel lands on Hay, you take half the pot. Hay hope is hope for something part-way to amazing. It's a remission in cancer. It’s a good few days during the months after a concussion. It’s when some basically good and decent people win elections, even if they don’t have a policy solution for everything. It’s when some time after a divorce, you’re with people and feel connected, feel like the new version of yourself is someone you might be happy being.
A lot of the good things that happen to us, or that we achieve, are Hay. Hoping for a Hay isn’t settling – it’s a real kind of hope. It’s looking at what is or could be, and not at what’s missing.
A third scenario in dreidel is Shin. If you get a Shin, you don’t get anything – actually you have to put something back into the pot.
That doesn’t seem like any kind of hope. It seems like the opposite of hope.
But it’s not. Shin is what you do that gives someone else hope. Shin stands for the Hebrew word sham, which means "there", somewhere else.
When we get together in prayer, we might have prayers for ourselves, things that we need or are concerned about, things we are thankful about because of what happened to me this week.
But just as important is what we do for each other. When we get to the prayer for healing, some of us will say the names of people we know who are sick. And all of us are going to hear those prayers, and acknowledge them. All of us are going to say Amen, and stand by you who are praying, and hopefully be willing to support you and the person who is not here who you are caring for in whatever way you are. That’s our Shin.
Some of the most profound hopes I have ever heard have been at funerals and shivas. People talk about how they have been transformed by someone who is no longer here. While that loss is so palpable, so is the hope that came from that person’s life. That’s Shin hope.
I’ve talked before about a congregant who was saying her mother's name for Misheberach for healing for many weeks a few years ago, until her mother died. When she and her husband came back to services the first time after returning from shiva, I had a pit in my stomach, thinking about the name we couldn't say. But then, she did something remarkable – she said someone else's name. She offered up a prayer for someone else's healing. Surely that prayer wasn't a Gimel, a hope for a certain cure. The prayer was a Shin, a response to personal loss by doing for someone else who had a need for prayer and a need for hope.
The other outcome in dreidel is Nun, where nothing happens. You don’t get anything from the pot and you don’t put anything in. Strangely, Nun in Hebrew is the first letter of nes, the word for miracle. So how can hope be connected to nothingness?
Nun is looking where others would have no hope – and having hope anyway. It’s living by your values even when you don’t get rewards or recognition. It’s believing in the goodness of the world and the goodness of people, even on the days when you don’t see any of it. It’s looking at the Chanukiyyah the moment before you light the candle, seeing the darkness and believing that a bit of light is somewhere anyway. Hope in a Nun way isn’t about optimism or predicting outcomes. It’s a way of saying that some things are true and worthwhile no matter what is actually going to happen.
This is the portfolio of hope: Nun, Gimel, Hay, Shin. Hope for the biggest things imaginable, the ones that sometimes happen. Hope for partial healing and partial justice and partial happiness. Hoping for others, and just hoping when you can't give any good reason for doing so. We don’t get or shoot for a 25-25-25-25 portfolio. But we all need some of each of the letters. Hope isn’t all or nothing; a spiritual person isn’t one who has Gimel hope all the time. A skeptic isn’t someone who refuses to hope.
We live for the Gimel and the Hay -- or so we think. But I think the Nun and the Shin are at least as profound, at least as hopeful. Hope doesn’t just come, we don’t just have it or not. It comes from somewhere else, from Shin, and it stays when there is nothing, Nun. We need all four in our portfolio.
Before the Maccabees found the cruse of oil, someone had to store it away. It took a Shin, someone to give that oil. Someone to buy the M&Ms for the game, someone to put them on the table in the first place.
That’s what’s happening here in a Jewish community all the time.
We can hope because our ancestors kept passing along the Torah – a story about a people who were so far from freedom, the farthest possible, trapped by the most powerful tyrant on earth-- but who became free. A story of a God who could reach absolutely anywhere, take the lowliest people and rescue them, make them the first people close to God and then charge them with a mission to spread into the world.
We can hope because every Shabbat there’s a gathering where we dare to say words like love, peace, justice, ahava, shalom, tzedek, over and over, to keep them real in a world where they seem not to be.
We can hope because of young people learning Torah and Jewish values, taking our Shin and experiencing it as their Gimel.
So this Chanukkah, think about that hope portfolio. And don’t put all your M&Ms, all your investments, in Gimel and Hay; it’s not only about those times when everything turns out, or when a lot goes right. Each of us needs a life of some Gimel, some Hay, some Nun and some Shin. Think what you can do to hope, when hope seems unreasonable. When our people are at war. Think about what someone has done for you when you weren’t hopeful, and how you can pay that forward and make the next person’s life more hopeful.
Chag Urim Sameach -- Happy Chanukkah!