Dvar Torah Shabbat Pesach: Does Yichus Matter?

Does he/she come from a good family? That’s a common question parents and grandparents ask about any perspective (grand)son- or (grand)daughter-in-law.  After all, as the adage goes, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” 

Moreover, in traditional Jewish communities, especially those in which marriages are arranged by parents and/or a matchmaker (Yiddish: shadchan), a suitor’s yichus (lineage) may be the most important (dis)qualification for marriage suitability. 

And it might even appear that this Shabbat’s Torah portion (Shabbat Chol Hamoed Pesach) supports judging a person by the character of his or her parents and grandparents: “[G-d] visits the iniquity of the parents upon children and children’s children” (Exodus 34:7).  (See also, Numbers 14:18).

But that isn’t how our tradition understands this Torah verse.  According to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 27b), “the iniquity of parents upon children” refers only to children who follow their parents’ bad example.  G-d does not punish children if they themselves act properly.  Similarly, when in Exodus 20:5 (part of the “Ten Commandments,”) G-d says “[I] visit the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me, the latter reference is taken by our sages to refer only to the generations doing the rejecting, not to their parents.   For example,

  • Rashi approving cites Onkelos’s translation [Referring to the authoritative translation of the Bible into Aramaic] qualification, “when the children cling to the deeds of their parents.” 
  • Regarding the phrase “of those who reject Me,” Nachmanides comments, “and only these. For if one of them has a righteous son, his father’s punishment is not visited upon him.”
  • Ibn Ezra states, “But if the son is one of those who love G-d, He will not remember his father’s guilt against him.

And, say the rabbis, if G-d does not judge children by their parents, neither should we.

Deuteronomy declares, “Parents shall not be put to death for children, nor children be put to death for parents; a person shall be put to death only for his own crime.” (24:16).  Most explicit is Ezekiel Chapter 18, which alternatively describes a righteous father with a ruffian son, and then a sinful father with a righteous son.  “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)

In addition to directives and prohibitions on the subject, the Bible contains examples of children whose behavior did not emulate that of their parents.  Among them:

  • Pharaoh’s daughter defies her father’s decree that male babies be killed and saves the life of the infant Moses. (Exodus 2:5-10)
  • The two sons of the righteous priest Eli were scoundrels. (I Samuel 2:12-17)
  • The grandson of the wicked King Manesseh/son of the immoral King Amon was King Josiah, whom the Bible extolls as a singularly repentant and law-abiding. (II Kings 23:25)  

The lesson for us is not that yichus and family upbringing/environment are irrelevant to shaping character, but rather that we are not entitled to judge individuals by their families.  

Before forming an opinion about anyone’s character, we should look to his or her own behavior.  That is certainly how we wished our parents to judge our prospective spouse, our prospective in-laws to judge us, how our children would wish us to judge their perspective spouse -- and also how we ourselves would wish to be judged.

Happy Passover and Shabbat Shalom!

References:

Carasik, The Commentators’ Bible, Exodus

JPS, The Jewish Study Bible

Telushkin, A Code of Jewish Ethics

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb