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Being punished for the bad deeds of your ancestors

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Topic: Ancestors, Being Punished For The Bad Deeds

J.B. from The States asks:

In Ki Tisa [last] week, I read that Hashem remembers good deeds for thousands of generations. However, the bad deeds of the current generation are carried onward for three or four generations. This infliction on those who are yet unborn or on those who are not directly responsible for the bad deeds does not feel right to me . Maybe you could provide some positive thoughts.

Thank you and best regards,

Dear J.B.,

I agree with you that punishing innocents for crimes that others have committed doesn't seem fair. The Talmud in Tractate Brachot discusses this issue and resolves it in the following way:

"Behold it says: 'He remembers the sins of the fathers upon the children (Shemot 34:7)' and it says: 'And the children shall not die on account of their fathers (Devarim 24:16).' These verses apparently contradict one another, but we reconcile them by saying that 'there is no difficulty,' one of them [Shemot] is talking about when they are still holding on to the ways of their parents and one [Devarim] is referring to when they are not holding on to the ways of their parents."

So, according to the Talmud the verse that was troubling you is referring to children or grandchildren that are continuing in their parents' ways. In the Book of Samuel II, there is an example of this. At first glance the incident is a very troubling one.

We are taught that there was a famine during the reign of King David and that he was told that the reason for the famine was partially in response for the killing of Gibeonites by the house of King Saul. The Gibeonites were a tribe of Amorites who had tricked the Israelites at the beginning of the conquest of Israel into making a treaty with them. They masqueraded as a nomadic tribe from far-away, and the treaty was ratified. Shortly afterward, the Israelites discovered the ruse and responded by making the Gibeonites a caste of wood-choppers and water-carriers. They chiefly served the Priests. It was apparently when the Priestly city of Nov was decimated by Saul for supposed insurrection that the Gibeonites were slaughtered. King David asked the Gibeonites how they could be mollified. They responded by asking that seven members of the house of Saul be hung at his former royal residence. King David complied.

There are many troubling issues that this passage presents, but by far the most troubling is the killing of innocent people for the crime of Saul. The Malbim in his commentary on the Books of the Prophets explains that what actually happened was that after the supposed insurrection at Nov, the Gibeonites became an oppressed class, and were continuously harassed, chiefly by the House of Saul. These members of the former Royal House persisted in the _ways of their grandfather_ and were thus punished. The message was that the harassment will no longer be tolerated, no matter who the perpetrator is, even if he is a member of the aristocracy.

There are many people who feel that they are not responsible for their actions because they were raised in an environment that caused them to do what they did. "It's not my fault I was born into this neighborhood, I can't be held responsible for my becoming a thief or a murderer." The Torah tells us otherwise. We make the choices and we are responsible for the outcome. In his book 'Awaken the Giant Within', Tony Robbins mentions that he has interviewed thousands of people. Among them are siblings from difficult family situations. One sibling became a convict, another a successful family man with a thriving business. When he asked the convict how he got to where he is, he answered "With parents like mine I had no choice." When he asked the brother how he got to where he is, he also answered "With parents like mine I had no choice!"

We make the decisions.


  • The Talmud - Tractate Berachot, page 7a.
  • The Tanach - The Book of Samuel II, ch. 21, v.1-11.
  • Rabbi Meir Leibush Malbim - Commentary on Tanach, ibid.
  • Anthony Robbins, Awaken the Giant Within, Summit Books.

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