Punishment w/o Crime?
Jeannine Berman wrote:
In Ki Sisa I read that Hashem remembers good deeds for thousands of generations. However, the bad deeds of the current generation (mother and father) are carried onward for three or four generations. This infliction on those who are yet unborn or on those who are not directly responsible for the bad deeds does not feel right to me. Maybe you could provide some positive thoughts. Thank you and best regards.
Dear Jeannine Berman,
My first positive thought: "Its [the Torah's] ways are ways of pleasantness and all Its paths are peace" (Proverbs 3:17).
Let's look at the verse you quoted:
"[Hashem] recalls the iniquity of parents upon children and grandchildren, to the third and fourth generations."
Does this mean that Hashem punishes the children for the sins of their parents?
According to the classical commentaries, the emphasis of the verse is not that the the children are punished for their parents' sins. In fact, this verse describes the "13 Attributes of Mercy" used by Hashem in ruling the Creation.
The verse can be explained as follows:
The wicked person deserves to be destroyed right away. Instead, Hashem gives him an extension, to allow him to repent, or to bear righteous offspring. If, however, after four generations the offspring remain wicked, Hashem is "faced with a choice." He can grant another reprieve to this generation, just as he did for their ancestors. Or, he can punish/destroy them as they deserve. At this point, Hashem decides to go with the latter option. Why? Because He "recalls the sins of the fathers." This means that He remembers that these offspring themselves are already the result of a merciful extension, and they have already benefited from several generations of patience.
But what He really wants is that each person who strayed from the pleasant ways of the Torah will return to Him, and receive reward.
- Sforno, Ramban - Exodus 34:7.
- Tractate Berachot - 7a.