Suffering for the Sins of Others

Yitro By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Jan 29, 2000 / 5760 | Torah Commentary

Parashat Yitro is known for the appearance of the Ten Commandments, aseret ha-dibrot, the ten revealed “words” of God. While the majority of demands are straightforward and theologically tenable, a qualification in the third commandment has left generations of Jews wrestling with its implications. God declares, “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heaven above, or on the earth below… You shall not bow down to them or serve them. For I the Lord your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children (poked avon avot al banim), upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me, but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments” (Exodus 20:4-6). How are we to understand this biblical concept of vicarious punishment? Why should seemingly innocent children and grandchildren suffer for the mistakes of their parents and grandparents? A number of brilliant voices from the tradition shed light on our query.

It is clear that the prophets also had difficulty in accepting such a theology. Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel reject the concept of delayed retribution on innocent descendants. Jeremiah declares, “In those days, they shall no longer say, ‘Parents have eaten sour grapes and children’s teeth are blunted.’ But every one shall die for his own …” (Jeremiah 31:29-30). Ezekiel echoes this sentiment: “As I live – declares the Lord God – this proverb shall no longer be current… The person who sins, only he shall die” (Ezekiel 18:1-4).

These two prophets sensed an unfairness in the law and resolved it by saying that the vicarious retribution would not be in force forever. Were they suggesting that such punishment would be abrogated at some future time, or that even in their time it was no longer applicable? The rabbis of the Talmud thought the change had been effected from the time of Ezekiel onward, not only from some future messianic era. The sages assert, “Moses pronounced an adverse sentence on Israel – the visiting of the sins of the fathers upon the children – and it was revoked by Ezekiel” (Talmud Bavli, Makkot 24a). The Talmudic sages were averse to the idea that a merciful God would act ‘unjustly.’ They limited God’s words to a certain historical time.

Numerous commentators also struggled to understand this fateful qualification of the third commandment. Two medieval sages, Ibn Ezra (1080-1164) and Ramban (1194-1270), offer very different interpretations to resolve their theological dilemma. Ibn Ezra bases his interpretation on the Hebrew word poked which he argues connotes ‘memory and remembrance.’ God ‘remembers the sins of the ancestors’ unto later generations, but refrains from punishing them, hoping that the sinner and/or his descendants will do teshuvah (repent). Thus, Ibn Ezra makes use of this specific wording to limit God’s activity to remembering as opposed to punishing. Ramban rejects this understanding. He acknowledges that poked alone generally signifies remembrance, but insists that when followed by the preposition al as in our verse, poked can only mean vengeance or punishment. God will indeed punish later generations. Still, Ramban too finds a way out of the problem, citing the context of the verse. He limits this punishment to the transgression of idolatry and turning to other gods. No other sin will evoke future retribution.

Maimonides (1135-1204), a contemporary of Ramban, adds that God “restricts himself to the fourth generation only because the utmost of what man can see of his offspring is the fourth generation” (Maimonides, Guide to the Perplexed, 127). Thus, according to Maimonides, the Torah is warning each of us: our actions have ramifications for our entire forseeable futures.

Some seven hundred years after Maimonides, M.D. Cassuto (1883-1951) offered his explanation of God’s threat. First, Cassuto explains that the verse cannot be viewed vis-a-vis personal experiences. Rather, these words are “directed to the entire nation as a single entity in time throughout its generations.” That is to say, in reading of God’s threatened punishment, one must view this as directed to the collective nation – for if a whole generation strays, its descendants will be held accountable. Moreover, Cassuto points out that “since a man… grieves over the tribulation of his children and grandchildren not less… than over his own affliction, the Bible issues a warning so as to keep man far from sin” (Cassuto, Commentary on Exodus, 243). Ideally, we should be more concerned with our own iniquities and trespasses than those of future generations. However, we may pay more attention to the message if we know it may affect our children and children’s children.

These diverse voices of our tradition speak to the richness and dynamism of our relationship to Torah and to God. Far from unqualified acceptance, the prophets and rabbis throughout the ages wrestled with God’s holy words and their own sense of justice. Yohanan Muffs, professor of Bible at JTS, writes beautifully of the core task of the prophet in the Israelite tradition. Though the Israelite prophet is given explicit directions from God, the prophet is also “an independent advocate… attempting to mitigate the severity of the decree” (Muffs, Love and Joy, 9). The rabbis of the Talmud and the later commentators all saw themselves as torchbearers of this same holy task. Like Abraham in his negotiations over Sodom and Gemorrah and like Moses in the aftermath of the golden calf episode (when God seeks to destroy the nation) we are heirs to a tradition of protest – one that questions and seeks the essence of justice. It is this keen sense of fairness that gave birth to so many attempts to resolve the troublesome nature of God’s threat. Ultimately, each of the voices we have heard speaks part of the truth; the entirety of the truth resonates when Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Ramban, Ibn Ezra, Maimonides, Cassuto and the rabbis of the Talmud join voices in a call for justice and compassion.

Still, the wording of this third utterance does have a purpose. It alerts us to the especially insidious sin of idol worship and it shocks us into realizing the implications of our actions. Not as punishment but as fact, how we behave today sets a pattern and likely precedent for our descendants tomorrow.