By Avner Friedmann
There are several places in Torah where it seems that children are punished for the sins of their fathers. In the Ten Commandments we read: “You shall not prostrate yourself to them nor worship them, for I Hashem your G-d, am a jealous G-d, Who visits the sins of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations…” Elsewhere, the Torah also states: “Recalling the iniquity of the parents upon the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generations etc.” The prophets also seem to be saying a similar thing: “The fathers ate sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”
However, what justice can there be if children are punished for the sins of their parents? It seems terribly unfair. Moreover, the Torah seems to contradict itself when it states: “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their sons, nor shall sons be put to death because of their fathers; every man should be put to death for his own sins.”
So which is it? How could the Torah make both statements? Our Rabbis explain that the punishment of the children only applies if they follow in their parents’ footsteps and commit the same sins. That is, they have adopted the ways of their parents and made them their own. Rashi comments that under such circumstances, the wicked son is punished for his father’s sins as well as his own. However, if they do not continue the sinful customs of their parents, they are not held responsible, but rather, “The sons shall not be put to death because of their fathers sins.”
Our Rabbis gave a parable for this concept:
A hungry lion once chanced upon a fox and wanted to devour him. The fox was very cunning and said to the lion: “Hold on! Can’t you see how skinny I am? If you eat me your hunger will not be satisfied. Look at that man there! He is fat. Aren’t you better off eating him? He will make a full meal for you.” “I know your kind,” replied the lion. “You are clever and cunning. I will not eat that man out of fear of punishment.” Do not worry,” said the fox. “For is written: ‘The fathers ate sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ Hashem is long-suffering and will not punish you. If punishment is forthcoming, it is your children and grandchildren who will be punished, not you.”
The lion was convinced and went after the man. However, as he started to run towards him, the lion fell into a pit that had been camouflaged by the hunters. When the fox saw this, he approached the pit and looked down at the trapped lion. “Good morning,” said the fox. The lion yelled at him, “Liar! Why did you tell me my children would be punished? I myself was punished, even before I had a chance to commit the crime. Wait until I escape. I’ll tear you to shreds.” “Hey,” said the fox, “I did not lie. You were not punished for your own sin. You were punished for the sins of your fathers who devoured other men before you.” “But why should I suffer for my father’s sins?” asked the lion. “You were punished for your father’s sins because, just like your father, you were happy to commit a sin that you knew your sons would have to pay for!”
From this we learn that if a person continues in the evil footsteps of his fathers, it means that he too does not care if his own children will learn from his wrongdoings and follow in his steps. He does not care that his children will be punished. If however, a person does the right thing and does not continue the wrongdoings of his parents, he is assured that neither he nor his children will be punished for his father’s misdeeds. If we do the right thing and teach our children to also act appropriately, then only HaShem’s goodness and blessings will pursue us.
However, the enemies of HaShem and Israel, who teach their children to act in murderous and evil ways, and who cowardly hide behind their own children; both they and their children will be punished by HaShem and go down into the destruction that they themselves have wrought. May HaShem protect Israel and cause their enemies to fall into the pit that they themselves have dug, before they can perpetrate any of their evil designs. Behold, the Protector of Israel neither sleeps nor slumbers!