For the week ending 22 December 2012 / 8 Tevet 5773

Sins of Fathers and Sons

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Jonathan

Dear Rabbi,

I read that G-d 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 seem right to me. Perhaps you could provide some positive thoughts. Thank you and best regards.

Dear Jonathan,

I agree with you that punishing innocents for crimes that others have committed doesn't seem fair. The Talmud in Tractate Brachot (7a) discusses this issue and resolves it in the following way:

Behold one verse says: 'He delivers the sins of the fathers upon the children' (Ex. 34:7) and yet another says: 'And the children shall not die on account of their fathers' (Deut. 24:16). These verses apparently contradict one another, but they can be reconciled by saying that there is no difficulty: one verse is talking about when the children are continuing the evil ways of their parents and the other is referring to when they are not maintaining the evil ways of their parents.

So, according to the Talmud, the verse that is troubling you is referring specifically to a scenario where the children or grandchildren are continuing in their parents' evil ways. In the Book of Samuel II (21:1-11) there is an example of this, which, at first glance, seems very troubling.

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 due to the killing of the 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 Israelinto 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 when the priestly city of Novwas decimated by Saul for supposed insurrection that the Gibeonites were slaughtered. King David asked the Gibeonites how they could be appeased. 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 of Saul persisted in the ways of their grandfather and were thus punished. The message was that the harassment would 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 interviewed thousands siblings from difficult family situations. Interestingly, in many cases, while one sibling became a convict, the other became 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." But when he asked the successful brother how he got to where he is, he also answered "With parents like mine I had no choice!"

We make the decisions. And one who consciously continues the evil ways of his forbearers is guilty on two accounts: upholding the evil ways of his father is tantamount to doing them himself, while the actual acts that he does are held against him on their own right.

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