From “A Talmid” of the Zchus Avos Yogen Aleinu blog, edited for this website with the author’s kind permission.
The Bitul (“Self-Nullification”) of the Degel Machaneh Ephraim
This is written in honor of the great tzaddik, Reb Moshe Chaim Ephraim ben Reb Yechiel, ZY”A (1748-1800), the Rebbe of the town of Sudilkov, best known by the title of his sefer, Degel Machaneh Ephraim (“Banner of the Camp of Ephraim”), whose yahrtzeit is the 17th of Iyar. His father, Rabbi Yechiel Ashkenazi, was a great kabbalist from Germany, and his mother, Udel, was the daughter of the Baal Shem Tov. Her name was spelled alef-dalet-lamed, which the Baal Shem Tov said stood for the words “aish da’as lamo,” meaning “a fiery Torah to them” (Devarim 33:2). His younger brother was Reb Boruch of Mezhibuz, the reigning Chassidic master in the Ukraine of that period, and his sister was Feige, mother of the illustrious Reb Nachman of Breslov.
Alone with Hashem
In at least four places the Degel mentions the teaching of Reb Nachman Horedenker (a prominent disciple of the Degel’s grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov) on the verse: “No man shall go up with you, and also no man shall be seen throughout the mountain” (Shemos 34:3). We can learn out from this that when one wants to serve Hashem, he needs to imagine as if there is no one else in the world but himself. The Degel then uses this teaching to explain several other verses. I believe the reason why the Degel wrote on this so many times was because this was something he worked on, and he reached the level of which he speaks, as we will see at the end.
Parshas Emor: Avoid Negative Influences
Degel Machaneh Ephraim discusses how at times a tzadik can fall into the sins of the common folk of his generation. For example, if they are accustomed to levity, he may act in a light headed manner occasionally, so that he will be accepted by the people. The first verse of the Torah portion “Emor” cautions tzaddikim to be wary of this. It reads: “God said to Moshe, “Speak unto the Kohanim / Priests, the sons of Aharon, and tell them that one must not to defile himself among the people through having contact with the dead.” Meaning: The devout who serve God should not contaminate their souls with improper things done by the common folk. This is the meaning of what Hillel said (Avos 2: 6): “In a place where there is no man, strive to be a man.” One should strive to be a man and act as if there were no other people (meaning to be influenced by those who do improper things). This is in accordance with the words of Reb Nachman Horedenker above; one should act as if there is no one else, in order that he won’t learn improper things from them.
Parshas Shelach and Mattos: Secluded Prayer
In both of these sections the Degel explains the following verse according to the same principle: “And there shall be no man in the Tent of Meeting when he goes in to make atonement in the holy place until he comes out and has made atonement for himself, and for his household, and for all the assembly of Israel” (Bamidbar 16:17). Again, with this verse he teaches us that when one wants to serve Hashem truthfully he needs to imagine that no one else is present. When one goes to engage in hisbodedus (personal prayer, in which one tries to make atonement, as stated in the verse), he should do so in solitude and in a state of mind where he feels alone with Hashem.
Parshas Ha’azinu: “One to One”
The Degel explains the verse, “Hashem alone lead him, and there was not with Him a strange god,” once again citing a teaching from Reb Nachman Horedenker on the verse, “And no man shall ascend with you…”
The Degel then mentions the verse (Devarim 11:16), “You will turn and serve other gods,” and says, “But when a person is ‘yichidi’ (‘all alone’), he attaches himself to the ‘Yichudo Shel Olam’ (‘Unique One in the World,’ namely God) -- and then ‘there is not with him any strange god’ - only Hashem.” The way I understand this verse is: When one has no strange god, meaning that he is not thinking about anything but Hashem (“strange god” does not necessarily mean idols; it can mean money, power, fame, etc.) while engaged in Hisbodedus, then Hashem will lead him, because he is attached to Him.
Similarities With Likkutei Moharan
On several occasions, “A Simple Jew” wrote about similarities between Degel Machaneh Ephraim and Likkutei Moharan. Here is another similarity. In Likkutei Moharan I, 52, Reb Nachman of Breslov (who was a grandson of Reb Nachman Horedenker) states that the only way to come to “bitul” (self-nullification) and thus to incorporate oneself into the “Mechuyav Hametziyus” (“Necessary Existent,” meaning Hashem), is through Hisbodedus. He relates this to the Mishnah in Avos (3:5): “If one stays awake at night, and walks along an isolated path, and turns his heart to empty matters, it is as if that person forfeits his life.” Reb Nachman turns this to a positive instruction: one should go out at night and practice hisbodedus in a secluded place where other people don’t usually go, even by day, because in such surroundings he can come to “bitul” – literally, “emptying his heart to nothingness.” He takes his mind off all mundane distractions and purges his heart of all negative traits and worldly desires in order attain self-nullification. Then he will be able to incorporate his soul and the entire world that is inextricably connected to his soul into the Necessary Existent.
In the preface to the second part of Likkutei Moharan, Reb Nachman expounds on the verse, “One was Avraham” (Yechezkel 33:24). He interprets this to mean that Avraham acted as if he was the only one in the world and didn’t pay any attention to the criticism or antagonism, etc. of anyone around him. Similarly, when one wants to serve Hashem, he needs to imagine as if nobody else existed in the world. In this way, he won’t pay attention to any people, even close relatives, who might try to discourage him or mock him. He should also ignore any obstacles that interfere with his determination to serve Hashem.
Putting It All Together
Reb Nachman Horedenker, the Degel Machaneh Ephraim and Reb Nachman of Breslov all seem to be saying that one should speak to Hashem in a completely private place, and in this way, one can come to “bitul.” Elsewhere in Likkutei Moharan (II, 103), Reb Nachman says that it is not good if one hears or senses the presence of someone else next to him while he is praying. One needs to imagine as if he is completely alone with Hashem. (See also Likkutei Moharan I, 55.) This lesson can also be applied to the previous teachings of Reb Nachman Horedenker and the Degel. Even if one is among people, such as in shul or anywhere else, he should remove his toughts from those around him (as stated in the first paragraph). If one does this, then even when not alone, he can bring himself to “bitul.”
Parshas Bo: "Adam" Equals "Mah"
The term “mah” (מה) is often used to denote bitul, as when Moshe Rabbeinu said (Shemos 16:7) “What (mah – מָה) are we?” That is, he made himself into nothing – attaining complete bitul. There are several ways to spell out the letters in the name of Hashem (Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh). One of those spellings has the numerical value of 45, which is the numerical equivalent of “mah”(מה). This is spelled: יוד-הא- ואו- הא, using the letter “aleph” to expand each of the four primary letters. The Degel in Parshas Bo explains that a person is made of blood, or “dam” ( דם ). When you add the letter א – “one,” indicating Hashem, who is the “Alufo Shel Olam” – the Ruler of the World” -- to “dam” (דם), you get אדם, which equals 45, the same as “mah” (מה). That’s why this spelling of the Divine Name is spelled with “alephs.” When one comes to bitul, or מה, then he is the numerical equivalent -- אדם, a complete human being.
Praise of the Degel
It states in Bereishis 5:1: “This is the book of the generations of Adam.” The Degel says in the name of Reb Nachman Horedenker that the name of a person is his nefesh, or soul (“nefesh chaya hu shemo”). The Degel says that “sefer” (סֵפֶר , book) has the numerical value of “shem” ( שֵם , name). Based on this, perhaps we can say that tell it is also possible to know something about a person’s neshama from both his sefer and his name.
We can see that the Degel reached the level of bitul mentioned here, as the whole previous paragraph is built into the first letters (dalet-mem-alef) of the name of his holy sefer, Degel Machaneh Ephraim, which spell “adam” (אדם). Now, we can get a hint from the verse, “ זֶה סֵפֶר תּוֹלְדֹת אָדָם – This is the sefer (and name) that will teach us who אָדָם (the initial letters of ד׳גל מ׳חנה א׳פרים) was.”
Then again, the Degel's first name was “Moshe,” the same as Moshe Rabbenu who said, “We are nothing -- וְנַחְנוּ מָה).” Moshe Rabbeinu also personified the quality of the sefirah of Netzach; and the Degel’s yahrtzeit falls on the day in the counting of the Omer of “Netzach of Hod.”
In addition, the numerical value of דגל מחנה אפרים is the same as אדם מפורסם, which can mean “well known אדם”, indicating that it’s known that this tzadik reached the level of אדם, as mentioned. It also teaches us that through learning this sefer, one can come to bitul and reach the level of אדם.
The Degel’s yahrtzeit is the 17th day of Iyar, and 17 is the value of “tov,” meaning “good.” It is also the 32nd day of Sefiras Haomer – equal to “lev” ( לב, heart). The first letters of his name Degel Machaneh Ephraim (מ׳שה ח׳יים א׳פרים) equal 49, the value of “lev tov,” or “a good heart.” Finally, when one says just the word “Degel,” it is commonly known that one is referring to the Degel Machaneh Ephraim. The value of “Degel” is 37, the same as “tuvkha” טובך -- the word from אנא בכח that we concentrate on for the 32nd day of Sefiras HaOmer. Degel also equals the value of “zal” ( ז״ל), which, of course, stands for “zikhrono levrakha – of blessed memory.” That says it all.
May the merit of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim ben Yechiel protect all of Klal Yisroel and bring success in all endeavors, materially and spiritually, amen.