At the end of the second chapter of Megillat Ester, the new queen tells her husband that Mordechai had heard Bigtan and Teresh plotting to kill the king. Her deed and its aftermath serves as the prooftext for the Talmud’s assertion that quoting others “brings redemption to the world.”
How does the Talmud know that’s a general truth? Why would it be?
Not Not Quoting
One possibility is that it’s a matter of theft, as Midrash Tanchuma Bamidbar 27 has R. Chizkiyah and R. Yirmiyah b. Abba quoting R. Yochanan saying. For me, if avoidance of theft brings redemption, that should be true of all theft, and that’s what the statement should have said—whoever avoids stealing, in whatever form, brings redemption to the world.
Perhaps it’s because this is a theft of ideas instead of items or property, some nascent sense of intellectual property rights—we have to respect the ownership of an idea. If so, the redemption might come from respecting rights that aren’t well known. Not to steal someone’s car is a simple moral event, but to be careful about respecting another’s ownership of his ideas, well, that kind of care brings redemption. As I write that, it doesn’t feel untrue, but it also doesn’t pop out of the sources in an obviously convincing way. Let’s look at two more suggestions, and see where that takes us.
Tiferet Yisrael, a Mishnah commentary by R. Yisrael b”r Gedalya Lipshuetz (rabbi of Danzig–today, Gdansk– from 1837 until his passing in 1860), connects the redemption of quotation to publicizing the person who contributed positively to the world. Since Hashem wants that person to become famous (he assumes), our quoting him or her fosters Hashem’s goals. And when we foster Hashem’s goals, we hasten the redemption.
I don’t think this is the whole answer but it is, to me, a really important point. R. Lipshuetz is reminding us that when we witness others doing good, we can do nothing, we can admire them passively, or we can spread the word that here’s a person worth following, worth promoting, worth having as part of whatever team, group, or community we’re building, help them go viral, as it were. When we put the right person’s name to an idea, we not only spread the idea, we spread his or her reputation as someone whose insight is often valuable.
Maybe in all ages but certainly in our own, good people have to compete for attention. Not the narcissistic kind of attention we call celebrity, but attention for the true and valuable ideas they are working to teach us. Moshe Rabbenu had to compete with Paroh’s sorcerers, Yirmiyahu with the false prophets of his time, Rambam with those who accepted either too much or too little of the insights of the culture around them, and so on.
We can help the right people win that competition by communicating to each other when we’ve found someone worth following; one way to do that is by quoting (or re-tweeting) them. We don’t just say, “I heard this interesting idea,” or “I read this interesting shiur,” we speak of the person behind the ideas, to let their name, and their views, become more recognized as worthy of attention.
With all the importance of the Tiferet Yisrael’s point—in the absence of followers, supporters, and boosters, even our best and most thoughtful resources can’t become leaders—it doesn’t fully explain the statement, because the Gemara applies it even where there’s no question of the reputation of the original speaker.
Casting Our Deeds Upon the Waters
Another valuable approach is that of Torah Temimah, who wonders how R. Chanina knew this was a general principle. Torah Temimah suggests the statement wasn’t an absolute claim that quoting others brings redemption, but more of an assertion that it leads to unexpected and good outcomes.
The weakness of the comment is clear, that that should be true of any good deed. We can never know how far our actions will reverberate, so why single out quoting others? Its strength, to me, is that it fits well with the Purim story’s general portrayal of heroes operating in the dark.
Other sources highlight Mordechai’s bewilderment at this point in the story. Rashi thinks the reason he told Esther to withhold her lineage was so that palace officials would let her go, suspicious that she was too lower-class for the king. Meaning, as far as he was concerned, her being named queen was a disaster, not a step towards salvation.
Once she was taken, the Midrash (and Rashi) cites Mordechai as an example of a person being given a Heavenly hint and taking it to heart. He said to himself, how could it be that such a righteous woman as Esther would be doomed to marry a non-Jew unless there was some important outcome to it? His pacing around the court, which put him in place to hear Bigtan and Teresh plotting, was his way to be available for whatever the Divine plan, though he knew not what it was.
Purim as a Holiday of Stumbling on the Right Way to Act
The image we get, it seems to me, is that of Mordechai and Ester having the sense of being pushed towards their destiny, with no idea of what that is. They do what seems best, often failing; instead of being discouraged, they take that as evidence that Hashem is guiding them. (Winston Churchill: Success is moving from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm).
In that world, Ester reports news in Mordechai’s name, maybe only because it’s not right to take credit that’s not hers, even on something as amorphous as intellectual property. But, Torah Temimah’s idea suggests, in a time where we don’t know where we’re going, where the future is translucent, it’s also true that every good deed becomes more valuable, particularly those which aren’t our own, where all we’re doing is protecting the provenance of others’ good deeds, and whose reverberations, reach, or ramifications we can have no way of knowing.
Quoting others, keeping track of who has taught us valuable lessons, acting in the dark in what we hope will be a productive way. That’s where Mordechai and Esther were in the second chapter of the Megillah, and we gained redemption came from that. Would that that will be true for all of us as well.