[In Rabbi Yose's name, Rabbi Yohanan] taught previously: "A virtuous man who has good [fortune] is a virtuous son of a virtuous man; a virtuous man who has bad [fortune] is a virtuous son of a wicked man."
But is this so? For, one verse says: "[I the Lord your God am an impassioned God,] visiting parents' guilt upon their children" (Exod. 20:5); yet another verse says: " . . . and children shall not be put to death for [the deeds of their] parents . . . " (Deut. 24:16). A contradiction was identified between these two verses, but [our Sages] taught us there is no contradiction: the former verse deals with children who continue in the same course as their parents, and the latter verse with children who do not continue in the course of their parents.
Why do bad things happen to good people? That question is one of the oldest in our rabbinic tradition, and one of the thorniest that I have gotten in teaching throughout South Florida, where the concentration of Holocaust survivors and their descendants is especially high. In recent months, however, I have noticed how seldom young Jews raise that query in dealing with their own hardship: the misfortunes of our economy's slow recovery from the Great Recession. My impressions match current demographic research about the kind of resilience and faith that largely define the character of my generation, and also attest to the wisdom of the midrash above regarding our parents' actions.
Many of my peers who have come of age since the turn of the millennium, often called "Millennials," have experienced adversities like debt and un- or underemployment either personally or among their close friends and family. However, these material challenges have yet to erode their trust in family, community, and society. In fact, the Pew Research Center's landmark 2010 survey of Millennials reported that they prioritize being good parents, having a successful marriage, and helping others far above desires for wealth or leisure time. In a number of ways, Millennials express less skepticism about the government's effectiveness and corporations' practices than older Americans.
I see this information as affirming our parents' and grandparents' commitments to raising my generation with optimism and a conviction to make the world a better place to live. Perhaps that is naïve, and maybe we will someday view biblically the mess of the early 21st century as our punishment for the sins of an earlier era. I pray, though, that we will carefully evaluate the values, beliefs, and dreams of our elders for positive lessons, in order to preserve the pride we overwhelmingly feel for our unique identity and heritage as American Jews.