Once, Reb Yisrael of Ruzhin listened to a Hasid of Reb Moshe Zvi of Savran extol the virtues of his teacher.
“Reb Moshe is a man of deep humility,” the Hasid said. “Even the slightest sign of honor given to him would make him question his own worth. He never thought he was worthy.”
The Hasid paused, expecting a comment from Reb Yisrael marveling at the humility of his master. Reb Yisrael said nothing, and the Hasid Continued:
“Indeed, there is one town so taken with my rebbe that whenever he visits, the whole town turns out to honor him.”
“And this troubles him?” Reb Yisrael asked.
“Troubles him, indeed! First he would say it was the carriage they honored, noting its fine construction. Then he would hope it was the horses they honored, marveling at their strength. But in the end he knew it was him they honored. He would worry over the vanity of humankind to the point of making himself sick. He would actually vomit from all the fuss made over him!”
“Nebbich! (Yiddish for a foolish person, a loser)” Reb Yisrael exclaimed. “This poor fellow! Could he not find a better way to deal with honor than to vomit? There is a simple method: to receive all honor and yet to be attached to none of it. It wasn’t the honor that caused our dear brother to vomit; it was his obsession with it.”
Humility is highly valued among the Hasidim as a sign of spiritual maturity. But what is true humility? This story presents us with three approaches to humility. The first is the false humility of Reb Moshe’s wondering aloud whether it is the carriage or the horses that the people are honoring and not himself. Although this may fool his devout Hasid, we are not taken in. He knows they are coming out to honor him and not his horse.
The second is a more virulent false humility, which causes Reb Moshe to vomit. His stomach turns because he is convinced that he does not deserve such honor. He is obsessed with his own unworthiness, but the mere fact of his obsession suggests that his focus is fundamentally selfish and vain. This is clearly a Shakespearean case of “the man doth protest too much.”
The third approach to humility is that taught by Reb Yisrael: When honors come, accept them calmly. And when they pass, allow them to pass calmly. Do not place any importance on them, and do not place any unimportance on them. They are like rain: They come and they go, and there is no need to make a fuss about it.
Not making a fuss may well be a truer sign of spiritual maturity than that of humility. Those who crave the adulation of others and those who shun it are both trapped in their own drama. Better to allow reality simply to unfold as it will, and not pretend that we have much to say about it one way or the other.