Q. How can the Ten Commandments say that the Almighty is "a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children"? Is it fair that children should suffer because of the deeds of their parents?
A. The sages scrutinised every word of this commandment and contrasted the punishment of the children of the wicked ("to the third and fourth generation") and the reward of the righteous ("to the thousandth generation").
Said Ibn Ezra: "God is patient until the fourth generation and only then is punishment inflicted."
Tosafot HaRosh declares: "Until the fourth generation punishment is not imposed; God is waiting for repentance. But if a fourth generation persists with a family tradition of wickedness, they will suffer."
Saadia states that the children, in addition to being punished for their own sins, are now punished for their ancestors’ sins because they could have improved the family record but failed to do so.
The effect of righteousness, however, has a different timetable. Here, the moral foundations laid by one’s ancestors work for the benefit of future generations "to the thousandth generation", i.e. to the end of time. The Targum understands the phrase as "for thousands of generations"; the Mechilta says, "for innumerable generations".
Hence, even though future generations have their failings, the merits of their ancestors weigh favourably with God.
But the prophet Ezekiel finds this commandment difficult.
"What do you mean," he asks, "that you use this proverb, 'The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge'? Use it no more! The soul that sins, it shall die… The son shall not bear the sin of the father, neither shall the father bear the sin of the son" (Ezek. 18:2-3, 20).
Ezekiel is not rejecting the Decalogue but emphasising personal responsibility: if I sin, I will suffer; if I suffer, let it be for my own sin.
As the rabbis understand the Decalogue, the second commandment is saying the same thing. You do not suffer for the sins of your forebears *unless you yourself are also sinful*. You can overcome an encumbrance from the past.
If family history lays questionable baggage on your back, you have the power to lift it off. If the family name needs to be cleansed, there is something you can do about it.
HISTORY & GENERATIONS
Henry Ford had no time for history; he called it "just bunk". A better view came from the school inspector who told my class that the word "history" derives from "his story".
But the inspector was wrong. In his view, all history was biography – who people (apparently males, not females) were and what they did. He seemed to ignore political events, economic, scientific or cultural developments, even educational movements, and certainly not moral progress.
Ibn Ezra and Sforno interpret this with a far better approach when they say that in this coming Shabbat's Torah reading of "Tol’dot" ("generations"), that the word used in relation to Isaac indicates "Isaac in the context of his times".
A similar view comes in Parashat No’ach where the Torah gives us a picture of No’ach in the context of his generations (Gen. 6:9).
I.L. Peretz the Yiddish writer says that history is not merely about what was but what ought to have been. It is not only a people’s memory and identity but its stimulus to moral purpose and task.
WAIT TILL FATHER DIES
"Wait till father dies and then I will kill my brother," says Esau, who is eaten up by a burning hatred for Jacob (Gen. 27:41). It seems that only whilst Isaac is still alive will Esau be held back from attacking his brother.
The air of animosity has poisoned the family for years and things are getting worse. Isaac has been losing his sight and his strength for a considerable time, but Esau still has enough respect for the old man to know that this is not yet the time to implement his feelings of vengeance.
The killing of Jacob is only one (the worst) example of what is likely to happen once Isaac is dead. It is also likely that Esau will give up any pretence at piety. When Isaac is gone Esau will no longer make a show of prayer, kashrut, Shabbat, yom-tov and everything else.
The Esau syndrome recurs throughout the ages. Much could be achieved if a family used the death of a parent to restore peace and to establish harmony as a memorial to the parent.
Rabbi Dr. Raymond Applewas for many years Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesman on Judaism. After serving congregations in London, Rabbi Apple was chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, for 32 years. He also held many public roles, particularly in the fields of chaplaincy, interfaith dialogue and Freemasonry, and is the recipient of several national and civic honours. Now retired, he lives in Jerusalem and blogs at http://www.oztorah.com