The Sins of the Fathers Are No Excuse

A person’s pedigree is sometimes touted as a redeeming quality; but is that really the case? Indeed, by the same logic is a less than distinguished lineage an excuse for misbehavior?

My father, of blessed memory, would have answered no to both questions because as he put it, the only Yichus (lineage) that really counted was Yichus Atzmi, i.e.: how the person comported his or her self.

This principle it put into sharp focus in this week’s Torah portion of Ki Tisa[i], when G-d instructs Moses about the best approach to seeking G-d’s forgiveness. The formulation is clothed in the form of a prayer that praises G-d for being compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin. However, it does not end there. It goes on to say, yet not remitting all punishment, but visiting the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.

The first part is a wonderful prescription of how to seek and obtain forgiveness. As the Talmud[ii] explains, the possibility of repenting sins, praying for forgiveness and obtaining a clean slate is a marvelous gift G-d bestowed on humanity. We invoke this potential by emulating G-d’s ways in our dealings with other people[iii]. In essence, if a person acts graciously and is forgiving of his or her ill treatment by others, then G-d will be gracious and forgiving of the sins of that person, as well.

The second part of the formulation appears more troubling. It seems to imply that the sins of the fathers are visited on the children. However, as the Torah[iv] assures us, parents are not punished for their children’s sins nor are children responsible for their parents’ sins; each is accountable only for their own wrongdoing. This apparent contradiction is resolved in the Talmud and what emerges is a cogent lesson for our times.

The Talmud[v] explains that the concept of children bearing the iniquity of their parents applies only if they adopt the wrongful actions of their ancestors as their own and similarly sin. In essence, each person has free will and can elect to act properly or not and has accountability for his or her own actions.

Implicit in this analysis is the notion that growing up in the home of a wicked, immoral, corrupt or unrighteous figure is no excuse for acting likewise. There are many individuals who have risen above the tawdry circumstances of their birth to become extraordinary and righteous people. We are each created in the image of G-d. We can choose to be better than our upbringing and grow up to become truly great people.

This concept applies to the community at large, as well. As the Talmud[vi] also discusses, we are all responsible for the actions of others. How does this jive with the principle of individual responsibility and accountability only for own sins? The answer is that we cannot be silent in the face of the iniquitous actions of others; we must protest. Indeed as the saying goes, all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.

The Sfas Emes[vii] notes that this is also a generational concern. Thus, each new generation must seek to correct the sins prevalent in the prior generation that would otherwise infect their own behavioral norms. We inherit a system of values, some good and others not so good. We are charged with perfecting our conduct, so as not to make the same mistakes.

We face with many challenges today. These include the resurgence of vicious antisemitic attacks, locally here in the US and in Europe; the horrendous treatment by China of the Uyghurs; the existential threat posed by the Iranian regime to Israel and the US; the terrorist activities of the Iranian regime and its proxies and oppression of their own people; the increase in crime here in the US, as well as, other nefarious activities throughout the world; all of which cannot be tolerated.

Wrong is wrong, no matter the lineage of the perpetrator. It’s time resoundingly to reject the false presumptions of privilege or victimhood. We are all created in G-d’s image and have free will. Each person can choose to do what is right or, G-d forbid, wrong. Excusing misbehavior is tantamount to complicity, as noted above.

We cannot remain silent in the face of evil conduct or condone or excuse it; we must protest. We must also strive to act properly and emulate G-d’s ways. May our legacy to the next generation be one of meritorious conduct.

[i] Exodus 34:6-7.

[ii] BT Rosh HaShanah 17b.

[iii] Shenei Luchot HaBrit (Shelah), Torah Shebichtav, Ki Tavo, Torah Ohr 1.

[iv] Deuteronomy 24:16. See also Jeremiah 31:30, II Kings 14:6 and II Chronicles 25:4.

[v] BT Brachot 7a. See also BT Sanhedrin 27b.

[vi] BT Sanhedrin 27b.

[vii] Sfas Emes, Deuteronomy 4:4.

About the Author
Leonard Grunstein, a retired attorney and banker, founded and served as Chairman of Metropolitan National Bank and then Israel Discount Bank of NY. He also founded Project Ezrah and serves on the Board of Revel at Yeshiva University and the AIPAC National Council. He has published articles in the Banking Law Journal, Real Estate Finance Journal and other fine publications.
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