The Deeds of the Forefathers Are a Sign for Their Children

“These are the words that Moshe spoke to all Israel, on the other side of the Jordan, in the Wilderness, in the Aravah, opposite the Sea of Reeds; between Paran and Tophel, and Lavan, and Chatzerot, and Di-zahav”

(Devarim 1:1)

These places mentioned by Moshe Rabbeinu were where Bnei Yisrael had angered Hashem. In order to protect their honor, however, he merely hinted to their sins, not declaring them overtly. The generation that angered Hashem perished throughout the forty years in the Wilderness. This generation, about to enter the Land, was a people who had not sinned against Hashem. Why, then, did Moshe rebuke them for sins committed previously, which they themselves had no part in? Their fathers had sinned. Did that mean that the sons had to pay the price?

“The deeds of the forefathers are a symbol for their children” (see Tanchuma, Lech Lecha 9; see Ramban, Lech Lecha 12:2). This is true for better or for worse. Sons inherit their fathers’ merits. This is referred to as zechut avot. On the other hand, they also receive the impact of any sins their fathers may have committed, which is liable to affect them negatively. The Torah’s prime example of this is the son of the beautiful woman )eishet yefet to’ar), who eventually becomes a wayward son (ben sorer u’morer). He had not been conceived in purity and sanctity. His parents are the ones ultimately responsible for his embracing foreign values (Sanhedrin 107a). Similarly, the son of Shelomit bat Divri blasphemed Hashem’s Name. He came from a disreputable source. His mother, Shelomit, was outgoing and outspoken (see Yalkut Shimoni, Vayikra 657). She was molested by an Egyptian, and this son was the product of that union (Shemot Rabbah 1:28).

Elisha ben Avuyah is another example of someone who was rotten at the roots (Yerushalmi, Chagigah 2:1). With all of his wealth of Torah knowledge, he was called Acher (Other), for he ended up deviating from the path of Torah. This happened because, during pregnancy, his mother craved food and ate on Yom Kippur. Years down the line, this proved her son’s undoing. Furthermore, Acher’s father brought his young son to the Beit Hamidrash so that he should absorb the honor accorded to the Torah scholars. He had witnessed the fire surrounding the tzaddikim who had attended his son’s brit. He was consumed with the desire that his son, too, should be honored in similar fashion. Since his father’s intentions were not for the sake of Heaven, but merely for personal glory, Acher’s Torah knowledge eventually forsook him, leaving him out in the cold, exposed to the winds of foreign cultures.

Children who are conceived and educated according to the ways of Torah and mitzvot imbibe their parents’ positive attributes. Moreover, their parents’ heartfelt prayers are effective for future generations to come. In contrast, the improper deeds of parents can influence their children negatively. For this reason, Moshe felt it was appropriate to rebuke the people for their parents’ misdeeds. His reasoning behind this was twofold. First and foremost – so that they take his message to heart and not repeat their parents’ offenses, like a dog which returns to its vomit. And secondly – in order to categorically sever them from their fathers’ faults, uprooting their sins completely, so that they would not affect them adversely.

“These are the words” refer to all the places and everything that transpired to their ancestors. The very act of admonishment carried an element of absolution, detaching the people completely from any wrong impression made by their fathers’ acts in the Wilderness.

My holy grandfather, the tzaddik, Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto, zt”l, asks the following question in his sefer Ein Yaakov: Why does a father circumcise his son at eight days, before the child has any understanding? Wouldn’t it be preferable for a person to be circumcised at an older age, through his own free choice, and knowing what he is doing? Brit milah is the sign of the covenant between man and his Maker. Doesn’t it make sense that one should enter it when he has acquired sense, as opposed to being forced into it by his father, with no choice on his part?

Rabbi Yoshiyahu replies that a Jewish son is in need of the protection offered by the brit from a very young age. The brit is capable of shielding him from all harm. The foreskin is symbolic of the negative forces and the kelippah. It is fitting to remove this outer layer as soon as possible, so that it should not, chalilah, affect the child negatively. When this young man will grow up, he will be filled with gratitude toward his father who circumcised him while yet a newborn, providing him protection throughout his formative years. If this child grows into a true ben Torah, his father receives reward in retrospect, from the moment he circumcised his son, for with this act, he afforded his son the zechut to grow in Torah and yirah, for “sons bring merit to their fathers” (Sanhedrin 104a).

Similarly, sons can be punished on account of their fathers (see Shemot 20:5). Moshe’s words were meant to sever any connection this generation still maintained with the wicked ways of their fathers. He tried to pave for them a path to the Land, a path of goodness, which would enable them to live in peace and tranquility.

In Summary

• Why did Moshe chastise the people for sins that their fathers, who had already perished, had done? The maxim “The deeds of the fathers are a symbol for their children” carries weight for better or for worse. Standing at the entrance of Eretz Yisrael, Moshe Rabbeinu wished to sever this generation completely from any adverse effects that their fathers’ deeds might have on them. He did this by his rebuke.

• Just as parents confer merit upon their children, so too, it is within the children’s capacity to bring merit to their parents. This is borne out by the saying “Sons bring merit to their fathers.” When a father circumcises his son at eight days old, he is providing him protection from tumah. The father will subsequently receive reward for his son’s good deeds, from the day he circumcised him.


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