It is an old habit with theologians to beat the living with the bones of the dead. -Robert G. Ingersoll
When a child of mine apologizes for something they did, I will sometimes counter that the apology is not very meaningful if they go on to repeat their wrongdoing. That principle, in essence, lies at the heart of an old theological conundrum that the Torah presents us with. One on hand, there is a verse in Deuteronomy that clearly states that sons will not be punished for their father’s sins, nor the fathers for their son’s sins. However, we have other places where the Torah states that God “will visit the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children.”
First of all, that doesn’t seem very fair. Second of all, how do we resolve the contradiction? Are children punished for their parents’ sins or not?
The Meshech Chochma on Leviticus 16:30 brings the relatively famous answer from the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin 27b) that children are only punished for their parents’ sins if they continue the sins of their parents. However, the Meshech Chochma deepens this equation, making us liable for ancient sins as well as dividing the sins into two broad categories.
He states that whenever we violate a ritual command, a command that is predominantly between us and God, we somehow also become guilty of our ancestors’ sin of the Golden Calf. When we violate an interpersonal command, an infraction between us and our fellow Jew, that sin is connected back through millennia to the sin of Joseph’s brothers who sold him into slavery.
He learns this from a fascinating detail of the High Priest’s breastplate. The names of all of Jacob’s sons are etched onto the stones of the breastplate, except for one, Joseph. Having Joseph’s name there would be too stark a reminder of that ancient sin and it wouldn’t do for the High Priest, who is an agent of forgiveness and pardon, to have such an obvious reminder of that sin between brothers. It is also a reason why the breastplate, which was imbued with prophetic powers, ceased to work after the division of the monarchy into ten northern tribes (Kingdom of Israel) and two southern tribes (Kingdom of Judah) after the death of King Solomon. If there was no brotherly unity, the breastplate could not fulfill its ultimate function of being a conduit for divine communications.
If we don’t learn from our parents’ and our ancestors’ mistakes, if we repeat them, we are held accountable for those very mistakes. The point is we should have learned from them. If we do learn from them, if we repent, then those original sins are somehow also pardoned.
In our Yom Kippur liturgy, we quote God’s response to Moses of “and I will pardon you as per your words,” which occurs immediately after the sin of the Golden Calf. That is our pardon for the ritual sins for which we’ve repented. However, we also have the language of “and a pardoner of the tribes of Yeshurun.” That is the pardon for the sins we’ve committed against our brothers from which we’ve repented.
May we learn from our own and our ancestors’ mistakes, and not repeat them.
To the State of Israel, on the 72nd anniversary of its reestablishment.