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).
Yet 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.