Let us set aside two troubling issues (and these are biggies) for a moment in order to concentrate on yet another troubling question. Let us set aside: 1. Capital punishment (in brief: Torah not only permits it but mandates it, but the Rabbis effectively legislated capital punishment out of existence by placing severe restrictions on carrying it out); and (2) The notion of a punishing God (to which I do not subscribe, but clearly it was an inherent part of the theology of our ancestors).
Having set aside two enormous issues, I take up what appears to be a fundamental contradiction within Torah itself. Or is it? Two passages in Exodus and another in Deuteronomy suggest that God punishes children from the sins of their parents:
You shall not bow down or serve [other gods] for I, the Lord your God, am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and fourth generations of those who reject Me, but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My Commandments. (Exodus 20:5; Exodus 34: 6, 7 and Deuteronomy 5:9 express essentially the same idea couched in virtually identical terms.)Yet the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel both quote a proverb common in their day, “Parents eat sour grapes and their children’s teeth are blunted” and unequivocally rejects the theology behind it. Ezekiel says: As I live – declares the Lord God – this proverb shall no longer be current among you in Israel (Ezekiel 18:3)… The person who sins, he alone shall die. A child shall not share the burden of a parent’s guilt, nor shall a parent share the burden of a child’s guilt; the righteousness of the righteous shall be accounted to him alone, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be accounted to him alone (Ezekiel 18: 20).
How can we explain the apparent contradiction? The language of Exodus 20:5, 34:6, 7 and Deuteronomy 5:9 is poetry, not religious dogma to be interpreted literally. The writer compares the relatively short duration when the consequences of the sins of parents are experienced by their children, with the exceptionally long period of time when God’s love will be experienced by those committed to God. This is a remarkable statement. How often have we seen the consequences of parents’ choices propagate suffering generation after generation (consider the effects of alcoholism, emotional abuse, and sexual abuse). Children do suffer from the behavior of their parents, but Exodus 20:5, 34:6, 7 and Deuteronomy 5:9 tell us that when God enters people’s lives, the deck can be drastically stacked against the propagation of pain and suffering. When people believe in the possibility of change and goodness, they stop the cycle. Consider those who come from troubled backgrounds and have set for themselves – and many, many generations to follow – a different and positive course.
Ezekiel explains that punishment for sin is not God’s goal at all. Rather repentance is. What a wonderful reminder for us during Elul, the month set aside for teshuvah (repentance) in preparation for Rosh Hashanah.
Moreover, if the wicked one repents of all the sins that he committed and keeps all My laws and does what is just and right, he shall live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions he committed shall be remembered against him; because of the righteousness he has practiced, he shall live. Is it my desire that a wicked person shall die? – says the Lord God. It is rather that he should turn back from his ways and live. (Ezekiel 18:21-23)As God’s focus is on repentance and forgiveness, so should be ours. As God stacks the deck wildly in favor of love over punishment, so should we. God wants us to live lives of blessing. May our repentance in this month of Elul bring us and all those we love blessing.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman