World champion boxer Muhammad Ali famously responded to the charge that he was pretentiously boastful, claiming that he was “the greatest,” by saying: “It’s not bragging if you can back it up.” Unbeknown to Ali, it was humorist Will Rogers (d. 1935) who “beat him to the punch” when he quipped: “The six greatest words known to man’s fragile ego are: ‘It ain’t bragging if it’s true.” The fact of the matter is people find it hard to avoid boasting about their own accomplishments. If there is an antidote to the affliction of (often shameless) self-promotion, it may lie in the teachings that emerge from the Torah.
Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzhak, popularly known as RaShI, understands that the declaration made by the farmer who brings first fruits to the Temple must be out loud. He infers that this must be the procedure based on the idiom “v’anita v’amarta” (Deuteronomy 26:5). The locution is quite unusual. It stands to be translated as “you shall answer and say” but this makes no sense since there is no preceding statement or question that demands a response.
Twelfth century French Rabbi Joseph Bekhor Shor goes further. What Bekhor Shor notices is that the declaration RaShI says must be aloud is one that pays tribute to God who heard the prayers of the Israelites in Egypt, liberated them from bondage, and brought them to the Land of Israel (Deuteronomy 26:7-9). However, shortly thereafter, the Israelite farmer must make a solemn confession that he had paid the appropriate tithes exactly as commanded (v. 13). This confession, claims Bekhor Shor, must be made in an undertone. Bragging about God’s compassion for His people is something to be said out loud. But bragging about one’s own obedience is not. Praise is generously offered for others – in this case for God, not for oneself.
At the 1980 White House ceremony when Philip Klutznick was introduced as President Jimmy Carter’s newly appointed Secretary of Commerce, the president heaped upon him considerable praise for his active role in the civil rights movement, his presidency of B’nai Brith, his service in the United Nations, and his law career, Klutznick seemed somewhat embarrassed, though all that was said was true. In his response, he meekly conceded that if the president of the United States has described him so, who is he to disagree? It was a great lesson in both honesty and modesty: values that are sorely needed today.