The Baal Shem Tov did not appoint anyone to take his place when he died. Instead, he instructed his Hasidim to seek out his successor among the teachers of his day.
“But how will we recognize him?” his disciples asked.
“You will ask him this question,” the Besht said. “How might one be rid of conceit?”
“And if he knows the answer, he is our teacher?”
“On the contrary,” the Baal Shem Tov said. “Anyone who claims to know how to be free of conceit is a liar. Conceit comes with having a sense of self, and the self cannot get rid of itself. And thinking otherwise is the height of conceit.”
“Yet,” one Hasid said, “is it not true that we are created in the image of God? Do we not reflect the Divine within ourselves? God is not filled with conceit, so how can we be?”
The Baal Shem Tov replied, “In Psalms we read: ‘God reigns clothed with majesty.'(Psalm 104:1) God’s ‘majesty’ is in fact humility, and the Infinite God wears robes of infinite humility. Now it is true that humans mirror God, but just as a mirror reverses what it reflects, so the human world often reverses the godly. Thus, if the humility of God is infinite, the hubris of humanity is no less so.”
When the Baal Shem Tov died and the time of mourning had passed, his senior students went out in search of his successor. They spoke to many great teachers and saints, and from each one they inquired how they might remove conceit from their hearts. Each tzaddik offered words of wise counsel. Finally, they came to Reb Pinchas of Korets and posed their question.
The tzaddik shook his head and said, “I, too, stand in fear of this, and I know of no wayout.”
“This one,” the Hasidim said, “is our new rebbe.”
What does it mean that the majesty of God is in fact the humility of God? The word “majesty” suggests a glorious presence: the majesty of a king or a queen is not hidden but honored; the majesty of a sunset is so powerful as to take one’s breath away. Can the majesty of God be so different from these?
Yes, indeed. Because our world mirrors God and thus often reverses godliness, we imagine God’s greatness to be over and above us when in fact it is below and beneath us. Genesis 1:2 tells us that God hovered over the waters — and where do the waters dwell except in the low places? God is not the powerful king lording it over us from on high; God is the subtle guide supporting us from below.
When we imagine God on high, we assume that spiritual practice is a struggle to climb the tallest mountain peaks by sheer force of will. Yet, when we discover God in the lowest of places, spiritual practice is a simple surrender to gravity: It is effortless and natural. It is also humbling. Where is the victory in sliding down the mountain? Where is the pride in surrender? There is no victory or pride, and that is the Baal Shem Tov’s point. A rebbe who claims to have mastered conceit is an ego still climbing, hoping to place its flag on the summit. A rebbe who knows this conceit and realizes the improbability of escape from it is ready to surrender to the fact that you cannot get to God, you can only give in to God.