I’m retranslating the Torah. Work that progresses slowly. Here is a preview.
The headline of this post is a sloppy translation of a portion of the verse Deuteronomy 5:9, or Exodus 20:5, the Second of the Ten Commandments. This also appears in the G^d’s Character Traits of Mercy in Exodus 34:7 and Numbers 14:18 which have an added word for offspring in general.
We must ask: How is it fair to punish (great-)grandchildren for sins of their (great-)grandparents? Judaism believes in fairness, as says Genesis 18:25.
And, Deuteronomy 24:16, Ezekiel 18:1-4, 20, II Kings 14: 5-6, and Jeremiah 31:29-30 say that parent nor child will be punished for the other’s sinning.
The Rabbis try to weigh the 4 punished generations against the ‘thousands’ for which the same verses proclaim G^d’s mercy. Some 2000/4=500 times more merciful than stern. Nice try, but you can’t expect G^d to say: I’ll be unfair to you only 0.2% of the time. Even we humans can’t justify sins by having many good deeds. The first ones are punished, the latter rewarded.
The Talmud (Makkot 24a) says that Moses decreed, and Ezekiel came and annulled the decree. Yet, Deuteronomy 24:16 already makes this point. It doesn’t need a later Prophet to ‘annul’ this. So, I don’t understand this.
The answer I always heard is: Children are only punished for a sin of their forefathers if they commit the same sin (Berakhot 7a, Sanhedrin 27b). But if they don’t, they’re held innocent and won’t be punished.
Could our verses hint that G^d can excuse three to four generations of sinners before extracting judgment on them? That would be merciful.
Illogical Means Bad Translation
Suddenly, yesterday morning at a bus stop, I saw a young person do something not so good. Spontaneously, I thought: He doesn’t know any better. This is probably how he was raised.
And then it occurred to me that the above translation makes no sense.
Now, I assume (one could differ) that the Torah text must make sense. If it doesn’t, we don’t have a proper translation, I assume.
It makes no sense and is unfair to punish kids (equally) who don’t know any better. Logically, this text should read the opposite, which is mild.
It also is illogical that only when children repeat a sin from a parent they will get punished. When you sinned on your own, you messed up already.
And, another assumption of mine is that some of Judaism’s mildness got lost in the Diaspora from intensive contact with stern Gentile worldviews.
A New Idea
The only basic, literal meaning that makes sense is if it is understood as: ‘G^d punishes parents for their sins done next to/with/beside/close to (compare ‘Al in Leviticus 23:20) kids (to the third and fourth generation).’ Not only for your sins you get punished but also for the bad example or guidance you gave your (great-)(grand-)kids to commit the same sin.
And that is exactly how we deal with vice and virtue. My virtues benefit my deceased parents; my vices, even if I learned them from my parents, I hope will not be counted against them when I repent. Happy Yom Kippur!