Adon Olam: Degel Machane Ephraim: First & Last
The 17th of Iyar is the Yahrtzeit of Rav Moshe Chaim Ephraim of Sadlikov, grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, author of Degel Machaneh Ephraim (1748-1800). He was born and died in Medzibosh, and his grave is next to that of the Baal Shem Tov. His brother was the famous Reb Baruch of Medzibosh. After the Baal Shem Tov’s passing, Moshe Chaim studied under the Maggid of Mezritch and Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye, the author of Toledos Yaakov Yosef.
“These are the Commandments which, if a man does, he shall live by them; I am God (Vayikra 18:5).” There is a profound way of interpreting this, but I am afraid to explain it, for my heart hesitates last I dare in my vision, heaven forbid. Therefore, I shall only give a slight hint, and if God grants me the privilege of understanding the matter thoroughly, I shall explain further.
I heard from my Master, my grandfather of blessed memory (the Ba’al shem Tov), that the Chief of the World (Alufo shel Olam) is concealed within sin. “The words of a wise man’s mouth are gracious (Ecclesiastes 10:12).”
The meaning of this is that the Alef is not revealed, it is not recognized in the pronunciation of the word. And similarly with the word, “impure (Tamei)”; here too, the Alef is silent at the end of the word.
To understand this: when a man commits a sin, heaven forbid, then his wisdom departs from him, as the Sages said, “No man commits a sin unless the spirit of madness enters in him (Sotah 3a).” At such a time he thinks that certainly, “God has forsaken the land (Ezekiel 8:12, 9:9),” and it is no longer concerned with it. For if he knew and believed that all his actions are done in the presence of the Lord, Who exercises providence over all his activities, certainly he would never have committed this sin.
In truth, what the sender thinks is an utter lie; for His blessed providence is present even in the sinful act. Imagine, if you can, that His providence was absent from the sinner even for but a moment; if that were to happen, the center would immediately die at that instant and would be unable to do anything whatsoever. Therefore, the Holy One is surely present; but in great hiddeness and concealment.
This is alluded to by the concealment of the Alef, which stands for the Aluf (“Chief”) of the world, at the end of the word. Now surely, when a man betakes himself to commit a sin, heaven forbid, but refrains from doing it because of his awareness of the Holy One, or when he performs a mitzvah because of his fear and love of the Holy One, this is termed the aspect of Alef. When a man asked virtuously, this comes under the category of, “I am the first (Isaiah 44:6),” and when, heaven forbid, he succumbs to sin, that is called, “I am the last.”
Of course, I, as, “the last,” yearn to arrive at the level of “I am the first,” for the sake of its own life; for every spiritual dissent in level is termed death; and when there is a spiritual ascent, as when one performs a mitzvah or restrains himself from doing a sin, or repents from the evil he has already gone, then the “I am the last,” is brought back to life by, “I am the first.” Then the Divine Light emanates from above to below, and it becomes, “I am the first, and I am the last, and beside Me there is no Lord,” for certainly the Lord has not forsaken the world, but He watches with open eyes over every particular of what is done in His world and in all the worlds, and He grants life to all of them.
This is what is alluded to in, “which if a man shall do, he shall live by them; I am God.” That is, if a man obeys the ordinances and commandments, “I am the last,” becomes “I am the first,” so that, “I am the first, and I am the last, and beside Me there is no other Lord,” as was mentioned.
May God forgive me if I had erred and may He show me wonders in His holy Torah, the Torah of truth, for me and my descendants forever, Amen. (Rabbi Moshe Chai Ephraim; Degel Machaneh Ephraim. Emor)