From “The Essential Rabbi Nachman”Translated by Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum from “Sipurey Ma’asiyot”
THE HUMBLE KING
There was a certain king who had a wise man. The king said to the wise man: “There is one king who signs himself as being ‘mighty, great and a man of truth and humility’. As for his being mighty, I know he is mighty because his kingdom is surrounded by the sea and in the sea stands a fleet of warships with cannons, which will not allow anyone to draw near. Inland from the sea is a deep moat that goes around the whole kingdom. To get in, there is only one tiny pathway wide enough for only one man, and there too stand cannons. If someone comes to make war, they fire with the cannons. It is impossible to get near.
“However, as for his signing himself ‘a man of truth and humility’, I don’t know. I therefore want you to bring me a portrait of that king.”
This was because this king had portraits of all the kings, but there was no portrait of that king in any king’s collection. The reason was that he was hidden from everybody. He sat behind a veil, remote from the people of his country.
The wise man went to the country. He realized that he needed to find out the nature of the country. How do you find out the nature of a country? You find it out through the people’s humor. When you want to know something, you should find out how people laugh and joke about it.
There are different kinds of jokes. Sometimes a person may really want to hurt another with words, but when the other takes exception to his words, he says, “I only meant it as a joke”. “Like one who exerts himself to cast firebrands and arrows. and then says, “I am only joking” (Proverbs 26:18-19). There are other times when a person may say something that is truly intended as a lighthearted joke, yet his friend is hurt by his words. Thus there are various different kinds of jokes and humor.
And among all the different kingdoms there is one kingdom that includes all kingdoms. In that kingdom is one city that includes all the cities of the entire kingdom that includes all kingdoms. In that city is one house which includes all the houses of the whole city that includes all the cities of the kingdom that includes all kingdoms. And there is one man who includes everything in that entire house. And there is also someone who produces all the mockery and joking of the kingdom.
The wise man took with him a large sum of money and went there and saw how they were mocking and joking in various ways. From the humor, he understood that the entire kingdom was full of lies from beginning to end. He saw the way they would joke about how people defrauded and deceived others in business, and how the injured party would sue in the lower courts where everything was lies and bribery. He would then go to a higher court, where everything was also lies. They used to put on comedies about all these kinds of things.
Through their humor the sage understood that the entire kingdom was filled with lies and deceptions and that there was no truth anywhere. He did some business in the kingdom, allowing himself to be defrauded in the transaction. He took the case to court, but the court was all lies and bribes. One day he would give them a bribe but the next day they would not recognize him. He went to a higher court, and there too it was all lies. Eventually he came before the Supreme Court, but they too were full of lies and bribery. Finally he came to the king himself.
When he came to the king, he said, “Who are you king over? The whole kingdom is full of lies from beginning to end and there’s no truth in it.”
He began enumerating all the lies in the kingdom. When the king heard his words, he turned his ear to the veil to hear what he was saying. The king was surprised that there was anyone who knew about all the lies in the kingdom.
The ministers of state who heard what he was saying were very angry with him. Yet he went on telling about all the lies in the kingdom.
“It would be proper to say,” declared the wise man, “that the king too is like them—that he loves falsehood just as his kingdom does. But from this I see that you are a man of truth: you are far from them because you cannot stand the falsehood of the country.”
The wise man began to praise the king greatly. But the king was very humble, and “in the place of His greatness, there is His humility” (Megilah 31a). Such is the way of the humble person. The more he is praised and magnified, the smaller and humbler he becomes. Because of the sage’s great praise, extolling and magnifying him, the king reached the utmost humility and smallness until he became literally nothing. He could not contain himself, and he threw aside the veil to see who this wise man was that knew and understood all this.
His face was revealed, and the sage saw it and brought his portrait back to the king.