"Anyone who brings the many towards merit -- a sin will not come about through him. And anyone who brings the many to sin will not be given the opportunity to repent. Moses merited and brought merit to the many. The merit of the many was dependent upon him, as it is said, 'He did G-d's righteousness and G-d's justice with Israel' (Deuteronomy 33:21). Jeroboam ben (son of) Nevat sinned and brought the masses to sin. The sin of the many was dependent upon him, as it is said, '...for the sins of Jeroboam which he sinned and caused Israel to sin' (I Kings 15:30)."
This mishna discusses one of the both sad and exhilarating realities of life -- our ability to influence others and its effect upon ourselves. If I positively influence others, I have made an imprint on the world beyond my limited self. The world has been made a better place -- irreversibly, as far as I'm concerned. Once this has occurred, G-d no longer deals with me as a solitary individual. I do not stand alone before G-d. The good I have brought into the world assumes a life of its own, no longer limited to myself alone.
If theoretically I were afterwards brought to sin, I would still have the significant merit of my share in the good deeds of others. But, states our mishna, G-d does not allow this. As the commentators (Rashi, Rabbeinu Yonah) explain, it would not be fitting that my students bask in the World to Come while I suffer in purgatory. Thus, if I have done good beyond myself, G-d rewards me in kind -- bringing forces beyond me to safeguard me in the path I have inspired in others.
The same is true regarding evil. If I have corrupted others, I have brought about evil in this world beyond my ability to contain. I may one day decide to repent myself, but it is no longer up to me. There is no way I can undo the damage I have wrought upon others -- unless somehow I use my same persuasive abilities to bring them back to Torah. Otherwise, I must carry the burden of the evil I have unleashed in the world. Thus, G-d does not allow me to repent while my "students" suffer. I have gone beyond my bounds in evil, and G-d too punishes beyond the bounds of His characteristic compassion.
With this in mind, we can gain an understanding of one of the most widely misunderstood concepts of the Torah. For as long as there have been skeptics, people have naively (or willfully) misunderstood Judaism as a religion of strict justice, commanded by a wrathful G-d of vengeance. Does not the Torah state, "For I, the L-rd your G-d, am a jealous G-d, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the sons, on the third generation and on the fourth generation to those that hate Me" (Exodus 20:5)?
At a relatively young age, I recall reading a book on ancient history which defined Judaism (at least ancient Judaism -- maybe some folks have come along and *improved* upon it since then!) as a religion of grim and compassionless justice, in which if a man sins, G-d not only punishes the sinner but his son as well. (I guess "Love your fellow as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18) was somehow only discovered by the Christians.) (Incidentally, even at that young age my religious upbringing was healthy enough for me to realize I was basically reading patent rubbish. Sad that much of the unsuspecting public is not so well-equipped.)
For starters, I would suspect nothing short of willful misrepresentation here. The verse I quoted from Exodus continues: "And [I] do kindness for two thousand generations for those who love Me and for those who observe My commandments." On this the Sages observe, rather matter of factly, that G-d's kindness is 500 times greater than His justice (Mechilta there).
However, even this aside, the overall concept is one which requires examination. G-d does seem to carry over sins -- as well as mitzvos (good deeds) -- from one generation to the next. What could the justice be behind that? How could the hapless son somehow be faulted for the sins of his wicked father?
The first relevant observation is that the Talmud makes it evidently clear that children are rewarded or punished only if they continue in their parents' path (Brachos 7a). G-d does not reward or punish because of ancient history -- because of a past the children had no knowledge of nor control over. The children must follow their parents' good or evil ways, at least indirectly giving it their tacit approval.
(In fact, on top of this, the Talmud (Makkos 24a) records that the Prophet Ezekiel requested that God annul this law, which he saw as too difficult for the populace. Whereas Moses stated "G-d visits the sons of father on their children" (Exodus 34:7), Ezekiel said "The soul that sins, it shall die"(Ezekiel 18:4). Therefore, what follows is an understanding of the original Torah law, which as we'll see, I feel still has much relevance today.)
Even so, this topic is far from concluded. Even if the son does continue in his father's path (and let's face it -- that's what the son grew up with -- he had far less ability to decide than the rest of us), why is he punished (or rewarded) beyond what he himself does? Can I really be punished for someone else's sins?
The simplest answer to this is that punishment per se is possibly not the correct word. What the father has done is akin to what the sinner of our mishna has done. He has brought evil into the world beyond himself. The effects of it will last for many generations. The son, who was raised on cynicism, dishonesty, or religious apathy, will grow up with a twisted and corrupted world view. For him the concept of the Sabbath -- even if observed in body -- will be a time of culinary pleasures and weekend recreation -- rather than spiritual awakening and rejuvenation. The Sabbath table will be forum for discussions of gossip, kibbitzing, and synagogue politics rather than Torah, zemiros (songs), and quality family time. Jewish holidays will be little more than social occasions. This -- what some call "shell Judaism" -- will be the default mindset the son will have acquired. Religion will be habit, superstitious nostalgia, or social convention rather than a meaningful way of life. The ignorance or cynicism the son or daughter was raised with will grow into a warped view of Judaism and of life. And unless arrested, it will create a burden he will have to carry for the rest of his life.
Thus, the son who follows his parents' evil path will have twice as far to climb. He will be "punished" for his father's iniquities by having to shoulder the burden of ignorance or apathy under which he was raised, and having to fight an uphill struggle against the painfully wrong default positions he has borne since youth.
This discussion has a long way to go. We'll pick this up G-d willing next week. Till then!