The central part of this parashah consists of the story of the Golden Calf, Israel’s apostasy by the worship of an idol or, in fact, the worship of God in a physical form, which is forbidden by the second commandment. As the covenant has been broken almost as soon as it has begun, God is about to renounce Israel, but Moses convinces God that it is in God’s best interest to try again. Following the destruction of the Calf, God’s reconciliation with the people is concretized in the carving of a second set of tablets. Moses had destroyed the first set since the covenant had been broken.
In what are some of the most fascinating and unusual passages in the Bible, God then reveals to Moses how Israel can be forgiven in the future if its people again seriously stray. Moses had asked to see God’s essence, something impossible for a human being, but God reveals a glimpse of some of God’s essential characteristics that include a large measure of compassion, patience, and mercy. In these verses (Exodus 34:6-7) God is called “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousand generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin…”
In the use of these words by the later Jewish tradition (mostly in the High Holiday liturgy), the verses are ended there. But in the Torah it goes on to say, “yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generation.” This concept of children suffering for the sins of their parents (or even earlier generations) is called “cross-generational retribution.”
This idea probably arose from the social construct of family solidarity in the ancient world. Since the basic unit of society was the family and not the individual, the individual is “inextricably bound up with their kin, including past and future generations”(Jeffery Tigay, “The JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy,” pp. 436-7). While in other ancient Near Eastern societies, cross generation retribution was a common mode of punishment for a host of crimes, in Biblical law, it was restricted to divine punishments and expressly forbidden to human courts (Exodus 34:6-7, Numbers 14:18, Deuteronomy 24:16). Since human experience sometimes does see later generations suffering for the sins of their ancestors, in Biblical law, cross-generational retribution was recognized as an expression of God’s control of human affairs.
Yet the moral problem of innocent people being punished by God for other’s behavior was raised as a theological problem even in Israelite times. The prophet Jeremiah restricted such punishment and asserted that in the future it would no longer be an active principle. Ezekiel denied that God acted in this way even in the present. In another source, Deuteronomy 7:9-10, only reward is cross generational, not punishment. Later, the Talmud went so far as to assert that Ezra in the 5th century BCE had annulled cross-generational retribution even though it was expressly written in the Torah (Makkot 24a). And this is why the liturgy stops the quote about God’s mercy before it comes to the punishment of children for the sins of their parents. Nonetheless, this idea continued to exist in the Jewish tradition even after Biblical times: “If it goes ill with the righteous man, his father was wicked” (Berakhot 10a).
Modern Jewish thought has gone even further and asserted that God does not actively reward or punish people in this world for their sins or the sins of past generations. In modern Jewish thought evil comes upon people not from God’s providence but human free will. This arose in the Jewish community mainly because the trauma of the Holocaust became a major impetus to a reassessment of how God acts in the world. The rejection of any kind of divine cross-generational retribution in the last 50 years in Jewish theology has been primarily on moral grounds. We cannot accept the idea that the Holocaust was a divine punishment for the sins of the generation that perished or for the sins of previous generations.
Post-Holocaust theology tried to preserve the principle of divine power by positing God’s self-limitation in order for human freedom to exist even at the cost of great evil. For philosopher Hans Jonas, this limitation took place at the moment of creation and the universe has since been evolving on its own without divine intervention. For Rabbi Irving Greenberg, God’s limitation was a gradual process of withdrawal from the control of human affairs. The metaphor most often used in this model of divine action is that of a parent and child. Just as a parent must relinquish control as the child grows and develops, so must God leave more and more of human affairs to humanity to govern even while remaining the ground of being, order, and novelty. God’s role is to be sustainer and guide, not an authoritarian ruler. God must suffer at human cruelty and folly even as parents are agonized by their children’s’ mistakes and pain.
And yet even as we absolve God from cross-generational punishment, we can still see how our actions can have deleterious effects on our future descendants. The legacy of the nuclear age will be with humanity for thousands of years in the form of radioactive waste. Our consumer society is causing the extinction of thousands of species of plants and animals each year. The climate may be radically different (and not in a good way) from that in which human civilization developed because of our short-sightedness and greed.
We are the ones who are visiting our sins on future generations when we should be acting in imitation of God and leaving a legacy of wisdom, compassion, and mercy instead.