Son's Punished for Father's Sins?

Moshe Ben-Chaim


Reader: I have a non-religious friend that saw a video, and on that video it said the reason that Jews get murdered viciously in Israel is not because of the Arabs, rather because the Jews sin. He can't accept such an answer. How do I explain this to him?

Mesora: Both views are correct. The fact that G-d punishes people is clear to anyone who reads history. Also true is the fact that people have free will - Arabs do kill. If G-d chooses, He will not step in to protect us. See our Shema prayer where G-d promises reward and punishment in proportion to our correct actions. This is a central theme throughout the Torah. Reward and punishment forms much of the book of Genesis. Had Genesis been false, subsequent generations would not have passed down the story of the Flood, or any other story recorded there. But in fact the opposite is true, that is, the world accepts Biblical accounts of the Flood, Sodom, Abraham, and all other stories and figures as absolute truths, thereby acting as undeniable proofs of G-d's devastating punishments and His gracious rewards.


Reader: Thank you very much for your insightful answer. But, one of the things he can't understand is, if I do a sin why should someone else get punished for it?

Mesora: The Torah system - G-d's system - does not punish others for your own sin. This is unjust. Not only that, but Ezekiel 18 teaches that even the person who sins is not punished if he repents. It states further, that his sins are actually forgotten before G-d. Certainly, another person won't be punished if you are not! When the Torah makes the statement (Exod. 20:5 ) "G-d remembers the sin of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations...", this verse ends with an essential idea, "to those who hate Me." Meaning, G-d does not punish subsequent generations, unless, "they (too) hate G-d", i.e., if they follow the sins of their parents. If however they cease following their father's sins, they will not be harmed. G-d only punishes the sinner. Punishment has no meaning or purpose for one who lives correctly, regardless of his father's corrupt actions. Punishment from G-d is a corrective measure. When no correction is required, no punishment is meted out.

One may ponder G-d's statement: "He remembers the sin of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations..." Why does G-d's remembrance of sin cease at the fourth generation? Ibn Ezra explains, for this duration, G-d will refrain His anger, "perhaps the sinner will repent, or, perhaps a child will be born who is better than the father". G-d waits three or four generations, but no longer. Why not? As Ibn Ezra says, in the fourth generation, the remembrance of all previous sinners is wiped out. It seems Ibn Ezra teaches, G-d will not need to prolong His anger to the fifth generation, as there will be no fifth - He kills all in the fourth generation. We see this concept when G-d promised to take the Jews into the land of Canaan (Israel) only after the Canaanites reached irrevocable maturation of their sins, only then requiring annihilation.

This concept of G-d prolonging His anger makes sense. G-d does this, as Ibn Ezra says, to allow one a chance to repent, or future generations an opportunity at a better life. If however a sin is repeated for three or four generations, it is apparent from this unyielding attachment to sin, that such a society has no remedy, and will produce only wicked individuals. As they have no purpose, and their deviance will corrupt others, G-d wipes out that civilization. Such was the case with the Flood and Sodom. Ninveh however heeded G-d's words and repented when Jonah announced G-d's plan to destroy them. As they repented from their evil ways, G-d's planned annihilation was no longer needed, and He spared them.

The next verse says, (Exod. 20:6) "(G-d) does kindness to the thousandth generation to those who watch My commands". Why such an imbalance? Why should this area not also be limited to three or four generations? What is the idea that G-d will "guard kindness to the thousandth generation"? It is repeated in Exod. 34:7. Doesn't justice demand that G-d keep kindness to those who keep His commands - even past the 1000th generation? And if they do not keep His commands, why is there a promise of 1000 generations or kindness? G-d should not keep kindness unless they keep His commands - regardless of the number of generations. The Ibn Ezra gives the explanation that G-d's kindness to the souls of the righteous is eternal, "eternal" being euphemistically phrased as "1000's of generations". This does not mean that G-d will show kindness to 1000 generations, regardless of their corruption. Ibn Ezra's explanation removes the problem.

Sforno explains "G-d will guard kindness to the thousandth generation" to mean that G-d will bestow good on the descendants of a righteous individual. This produces a question: What purpose is achieved by this practice? Why should future generations be promised such divine benefit from the righteousness of a single individual, who lived centuries earlier? They certainly do not 'deserve' good if they do not yet exist!

I believe this questions points us towards a basic theme in reward and punishment. The fact that G-d bestows good on future generations teaches a novel principle: G-d wishes the subsequent generations be influenced by their ancestors' perfection. When they see the good in their lives, they will recall G-d's principle of bestowing good for 1000 generations. They will then recognize that their ancestor's actions are favored by G-d, and they in turn will hopefully emulate their perfected ancestors. This is why our recollection of the Akeida - the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham - is so essential. According to Rambam, it teaches just how far one must go in their love of G-d. It is a lesson for future generations.

We now see a strong parallel between reward and punishment. Both take into consideration not only the person going through the experience, but future generations as well. Ibn Ezra said regarding punishment, G-d prolongs His anger to allow one a chance to repent, or future generations an opportunity at a better life. Regarding reward, G-d wishes subsequent generations be influenced by their ancestors' perfection. In G-d' s system of reward and punishment, the individual and the society share equal consideration.

Perhaps this was why G-d would have spared Sodom, had there been ten righteous people. The presence of ten righteous people is a salvation for all five cities either because it indicates the cities were able to produce some good, or because these ten souls could direct the sinners towards repentance.

I is notable that this institution of "Son's not Being Punished for Father's Sins" forms part of the Ten Commandments, perhaps indicating just how central this idea is for man's correct appreciation of our Creator's justice.