Rabbi Shmelke, the famed disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, was offered the position of chief Rabbi in Nikelsburg. Upon arriving to his post he learned that a festival of greeting had been organized in his honor. Before attending the festival he requested some alone time in a private room.
When his hosts came to collect him they heard him proclaiming, “The famous Shmelke has arrived, he is a great scholar and it is an honor to have him in our city.” They asked about his bizarre behavior and he explained that he would shortly hear such things from others. Concerned, that such flattery might compromise his humility he said them to himself first so that when he heard them later he would recall how lame they sounded on his own lips.
In 1894, the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe traveled to Romanovkeh in the Cherson region. Out of reverence, the entire community came out to greet him. As the carriage approached, the adoring crowds unhitched the horses and carried the wagon into the city. They considered it an honor to carry the Rebbe, but the elderly Chassidim, who witnessed the event, discerned a painful expression on his face. In recounting the story they would express the wish that their own heart be as broken and humbled on Yom Kippur at Neilah as the Rebbe’s was at that moment.
Rabbi Akiva Eiger and Rabi Yaakov of Lisa were traveling to Warsaw. When they approached, the greeting crowds unhitched the horses and drew the carriage in their stead. Each Rabbi quietly determined that this unusual display of respect was in honor of his colleague and each stepped from the carriage to join the crowd in pulling the other. When the carriage arrived at its destination the crowd was astonished to find it vacant. Only the carriage wasn’t vacant. It hummed with humility and respect.
These stories capture the right way to respond to flattery. Whether we are praised for our abilities, personality, character traits or physical appearance, our response must always be to look toward others that have accomplished even more and try to emulate them. In matters of goodness we must never be satisfied. Satisfaction leads to smugness and smugness leads to hubris.
When we hear our praises sung, our internal response should be that they are not praising me, but my achievements. I too am impressed by those achievements, in fact, so impressed that I cannot rest on my laurels in smug satisfaction. I must get up and do more. Compared to others I have barely scratched the surface.
There is a time for everything. This is not the time to sing odes. This is a time for action. When we are eulogized there will be ample time for praises, not now. So long as we are alive, we are capable of more. How can we sit back and enjoy flattery while time is wasting?
The concern is that we might not remember to think this way when we are accorded respect. The king carried a Torah with him at all times to remind him Whom he served. The Rabbis carried their humility and love of Torah to remind them. What can we carry to remind us?
We carry the stories of great Tzadikim. When we remember how they perceived their achievements we are inspired to emulate them. We should carry these stories with us at all times. When the need arises and the opportunity presents itself we can pull out one of these stories and use it to good effect.