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Beit Midrash Torah Portion and Tanach Ki Tetze

Parashat Ki Tetze

Fathers and Sons

Rabbi Yossef Carmel11 Elul 5764
Dedicated to the memory of
Yaakov Ben Behora
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In our parasha the Torah commands: "Fathers shall not be killed because of sons and sons shall not be killed because of fathers; a man shall be killed for his sin" (Devarim 24:16). At first glance, this commandment seems superfluous. Would one think that a father or a son be punished for the actions of his son or father, respectively? Also, aren’t the specifics clear from the concept that all should be punished for their own sins only?

Further investigation uncovers the possibility that fathers and sons are punished because of one another, at least on a certain level. We will mention a few examples. (I) When the death penalty is invoked, the potential future descendants of the executed lose their opportunity to be born. (This phenomenon is alluded to, according to one explanation in Rashi, by the pasuk regarding Hevel: "The voice of the blood (plural) of your brother ..." (Bereishit 4:10)). (II) In the Ten Commandments, the Torah describes Hashem as One who "recalls the sins of fathers on sons and third and fourth generations (Shemot 20:4). (III) Several sections in Tanach tell of kings who executed the families of those who the kings found to have wronged them (see Melachim II, 9:25; Divrei Hayamim II, 25:4).

None of these examples raises problems with our pasuk. The case of the unborn, while tragic, is not a punishment to a person but to a potential unborn, which our pasuk does not address. The cases of the kings are not relevant because they were carried out against halacha. There are also distinctions that explain the apparent contradiction from the Ten Commandments. Rashi (ad loc.) brings the Midrash that offspring receive punishment through the father only until the age of bar mitzva, whereas our pasuk mentions "ish" (a man). The gemara (Sanhedrin 27b) says that children are punished when they continue their father’s sinful behavior.

We can summarize as follows. Human courts may not punish one generation for the sins of another. The unborn are not "protected" by this rule. Whoever punishes an offender’s children is acting improperly.

Chazal learned from our pasuk an additional halacha, which has been adopted, at least partially, by secular court systems. The Torah law, as derived from our pasuk, is that beit din does not accept a relative’s testimony, neither to vindicate nor to vilify the litigant. So which does our pasuk refer to, to punishment of one because of the other’s actions or to not accepting testimony of one about the other? The Ramban says that Chazal understood that the same words of the same pasuk refer to both, one on the level of p’shat (simple meaning) and one on the level of drash (Rabbinic extrapolation). We see here, as elsewhere, that the different levels of understanding need not contradict but can complement each other.

Let us pray that the positive deeds of the different generations will bring only blessings one onto the other.

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