Parsha Thoughts by Rabbi Shmuel Wagner: Does bittul mean to be nothing? How can something be nothing? A powerful pasuk in this week’s parsha is transformed through the lens of Chassidus, teaching us how to view ourselves.
By Rabbi Shmuel Wagner
Let’s jump straight into controversialist mode:
Is “self-worth” Chasidish?
I know, I know, but please, hear me out:
If you feel that the foundation of Yiddishkeit and Chasidishkeit is antithetical to self-worth, please give me one word to express what that foundation is.
Is that word, perchance, “bittul”?
Well, does bittul mean that we are nothing? That sounds contradictory – “we” are “nothing”. Hmmm, what exactly is this “we” if it is “nothing”?
Think of this classic scenario: You walk into the kitchen, and your five-year-old quickly (as he imagines it) darts his hands behind his back. “What do you have there?” “Nothing…” “Reeeeally, hmmm, interesting…”
Right? If there really was “nothing” to discuss- exactly. There would not be any discussion.
“We” cannot be “nothing” – because Hashem created us. As Chassidus explains, the ultimate proof that we exist is the very fact that Torah says that we were created.
What then is bittul?
Bittul means that we exist, but not as intuitively perceived. Our “self” is real, but our self-perception is not naturally accurate:
Naturally, we perceive ourselves as autonomous and self-sustaining. Bittul is when we reach the point of acknowledgement that we are nothing other than an expression of Hashem’s extension.
Bittul is not experiencing yourself as nothing – it is nothing to be nothing. Rather, bittul is experiencing yourself as who you truly are; as you are from Hashem’s perspective. Feeling yourself as your truest essence.
There is a very bittul-themed pasuk in this week’s parsha:
“Ve’atoh yisrael, moh hashem elokecha sho’el mei’imach ki im leyir’ah es Hashem…”, “And now Yidden, what does Hashem, your Hashem, ask of you, but to fear Hashem…”
The simple understanding of these words is that of a rhetorical question: “What does Hashem ask of you? To fear Hashem”. However, the very fact that the Torah phrases it as a seemingly unnecessary question alludes to a deeper meaning, where the first half of the pasuk is an independent statement: “Moh hashem elokecha sho’el mei’imach!” “Hashem asks of you for ‘moh’!”
What is “moh”? Exactly 🙂
“Moh” is a level of bittul that cannot even be defined as bittul. Because to define bittul means that you can relate to it, and if it is relatable, palpable, definitive by your experience, it cannot be true bittul.
“Moh” is the very essence of the Yid’s Neshama that is so inherently connected to Hashem, its very identity is Hashem. The perspective of this etzem haneshama is such that it does not ever need to decide to serve Hashem, because there is no other option; there is no alternative reality!
“Moh hashem elokecha sho’el mei’imach!”, “Hashem asks of you to tap into your etzem haneshama!”
Comes along the Gemara and says, “Al tikrei moh elo me’ah”, do not read the pasuk as saying “moh”, rather as “Me’ah hashem elokecha sho’el mei’imach!”, “Hashem asks of you one hundred!”, which is the source of the well-known halacha that a person must make (at least) one hundred brachos every day.
Moh, as explained, is absolute nothingness. Me’ah, one hundred, on the other hand, represents completion! How does the Gemara take the word moh and turn it into the diametrically opposed me’ah?!
Whenever the Chachomim say “Al tikrei… elo…”, the meaning is not chas veshalom that they are taking away the literal word of the pasuk, rather they are telling us, “Al tikrei”– you will not be able to understand the literal word of the pasuk, “elo” – unless you first understand the pasuk with this other word.
In our case that would mean, the only way to reach moh is through me’ah. This only seems to strengthen our question: how can it be that the only way to reach the highest level of nullification is through completion?!
But of course, that is exactly the answer: Hashem asks you to achieve the highest form of bittul and reveal your inner essence – your moh. But how do I feel and experience this ultimate “nothingness”? If it is “nothing”, then what is there to feel?! To that the answer is, do you know what this bittul looks like? Do you know what this bittul feels like? Me’ah! Hashem wants you to be complete. Complete with all one hundred elements of powers, energies, and talents that He gave you, utilizing them all for the purpose of serving Hashem!
This means as follows: I was created by Hashem. I was created by Hashem with a purpose. Hashem created me with a specific personality, with specific talents – also for a purpose. I will therefore align my entire consciousness with this G-d-given purpose, recognizing that my sole identity is my etzem haneshama; nothing else but a part of Hashem.
Once I ignite the fire of my etzem haneshama, my moh, I will apply this abstract moh to my practical me’ah: I will infuse this core identity into each day-to-day thought, speech, and action, illuminating them all with this newfound perception of my true self. I can get detail-oriented and accomplish specific tasks using my talents, without ever getting caught up in a selfish self, because I am living my true, G-dly self!
It gets better. When I live my life in this manner, expressing my talents and accomplishing tremendous achievements, I am not compromising on my bittul – on the contrary: “Al tikrei moh elo me’ah”! The only way to truly experience the bittul of moh is through expressing it in an act of accomplishment and completion! If you never use the flame to ignite the darkness, you will never know of its power.
Go out there and achieve! Get out there and complete one hundred! Because bittul means that it is not about you – but once you align yourself with that awareness, it is about the real you! Never shy away from accomplishing by hiding behind the cloak of “But Who Am I?!”. To feel a self-consciousness stemming from self-lessness would be nothing but self-contradictory.
Is “self-worth” Chasidish? Absolutely! Once you have the proper perception of “self”. …
(Based on the life-changing Maamor, Ve’ato Yisrael 5737 – shoutout to the Ohel Nosson Sunday Morning Chassidus Shiur!)