In both versions of the Decalogue (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5), we are presented with a vexing moral issue: the Torah states that God will visit the iniquity of the fathers on the sons.
The astute reader wonders how punishing one generation for the sins of its ancestors can possibly be just. The later generation does not deserve this particular punishment; presumably, it will suffer in ways it has not earned. Moreover, is this generational punishment to befall a whole nation? Individuals? Is the effect cumulative? And is it to cover all of the sins of the previous generations, or a specific one (in which case, how many sins could a subsequent generation account for)?
Most concerning of all is the fact that God, who is described as perfect and merciful, would exact a punishment from anyone other than the wrong-doers themselves. That is, God is described as “ha-Tzur tamim po’alo ki kol derachav mishpat” – “the Rock, His work is perfect, for all His ways are justice” (Deut. 32:4). We expect God to be just and upright — if only because His Torah tells us that He is.
Don’t believe anyone who tells you they have The Answer to theodicy. The problem of “how bad things can happen to good people,” the question of how God judge mankind, is perplexing, by definition. Even Moses, the greatest of all prophets, struggled with this issue, and may have written the Book of Job, with its unanswered questions, in response (according to the view that dubs him the author of that book).
To make complicate matters further, several biblical verses seem to directly contradict this statement.
In Deuteronomy 7:10, God states that punishment will be meted out to the sinner – specifically. And in Deuteronomy 24:16, there is an explicit command that children not be put to death for the sins of the parents, nor parents punished for their children’s sins; rather, each person bears the responsibility of his or her own actions.
And in case Deuteronomy is not enough, the prophet Ezekiel describes a clear system of divine justice (chapter 18): The grandfather who is evil will die, his son who is righteous will live, and the next generation who again is bad will die as a result of its own actions. No generation is held responsible for the other, and each person has the opportunity to repent – a possibility that is fundamentally irrelevant in the generational punishment of the Ten Commandments.
Is there a way to harmonize these seemingly divergent texts? Perhaps – and at least we won’t be the first to try.
The most common attempt to reconcile these apparent contradictions is that the verse in this week’s parsha refers to divine justice, while the verses in Deuteronomy and in Ezekiel refer to the human judicial system. These are two different distinct systems and each has its own rules. Humans can only judge with a tunnel vision of the facts that are before them. Just as judges can only judge a case by the facts brought before them – in context, the verse in Deuteronomy also functions as the source that family members cannot provide damning testimony against relatives in court.
The fact that the human court cannot harm family members as a result of one person’s actions was actually a novel and bold concept in its time. Both the Code of Hammurabi and the Middle Assyrian law allow harm to be done to innocent family members as revenge for damages caused by a relative. (see 2 Kings 14:1-6, where the king does not punish his father’s assassin’s children, simply because Torah forbids it. As compared to the kind of revenge that was common practice in other nations).
While recognizing that as limited humans we cannot begin to grasp or understand the divine system of justice, we ask how this seemingly harsh punishment appears in the list of mercy attributes (the 13 attributes of divine mercy). Both after the sin of the golden calf and that of the spies, the nation deserved to be annihilated. The text mentions God’s intergenerational punishment as an act of kindness. Instead of destroying the people wholesale, God metes out the punishment over many years and generations. In this way, the punishment is diluted, each generation survives, and the nation continues.
Another common answer is that a child is only punished if he or she continues in the parent’s evil ways. Or that this system of judgement only refers to those who continue the parent’s idol worship. In the parsha, the verse appears in the Second Commandment and says that God visits the sins to those who hate Him. Perhaps that is understandable, then, if, at least in human terms, we might suppose that God does not owe the benefit of the doubt and the premise of good behavior to the heirs to idolatry and hatred of the Divine.
Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman, based on Ralbag’s view, theorizes that what is being described in our parsha is not a punishment, as much as it is a consequence. Parents who make poor decisions inadvertently make it difficult for children to turn those decision around. This relieves the burden of what seemed to contradict God’s perfection; rather, we may understand that the “visiting” of iniquity on a subsequent generation is no more than a natural process of cause and effect.
This suggests moral lesson that is to be gleaned from these texts, as Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt”l explains. Our sages across the generations reject the idea that children could be punished for their parents’ sins, and they therefore systematically reinterpret every passage to ensure the opposite impression. But every decision we make, whether as a parent, neighbor, teacher, friend, or any other role, is going to have a direct influence on others. No person exists in a vacuum, and while we may not have a legal responsibility to others, we certainly carry a moral weight.
Thus, rather than question the textual challenge to God’s justice, we do better to examine ourselves. Are we living up to the responsibility we each have for those around us?