Fathers and SonsBy Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
G-d spoke to Ezekiel and told him to explain the meaning of the popular saying of the time that fathers eat sour grapes, but the sons are the ones whose teeth are set on edge. (This means that the children pay the price for the actions of their parents.) G-d says that this saying will no longer be used. All souls belong to Him, both the souls of the fathers and the souls of the sons. The person who commits the sin is the one who will be punished.
Let’s say that there’s a person who is righteous and practices justice. The Navi then gives a list of sins from which that person would refrain including idolatry, adultery and violating the laws of family purity. He neither robs nor withholds from paying his debts. He is charitable, he doesn’t loan with interest and he pursues justice between his fellow men. Such a person will surely reap the benefits of his righteous deeds. Now let’s say that his son is an unrepentant sinner. He commits acts of violence, idolatry, adultery, robbery, and more. Shall such a person live? Should he benefit from the merits of his father? Surely not! He himself will bear the penalty for his actions.
Let us say further that the sinner of our example has a son of his own. This person sees the actions of his father and rejects them. He doesn’t commit idolatry or adultery or robbery, but rather he is generous and charitable and walks in the ways of G-d. Should this person be punished for the ways of his father? Again, surely not! But the people of Ezekiel’s time were saying, “Why do we, the sons, have to pay the price for the sins of our fathers?” If those sons were truly righteous, they would not be paying the price! The one that sinned is the one who will be punished.
Now let’s say that the evil person of our story gives up his sinful lifestyle and regrets all the injustice that he has committed. If so, that person will be forgiven and will live. G-d will “not remember” the sins that that person had previously committed. G-d doesn’t want wicked people to die; He would prefer that they turn from their evil ways and live! (This may sound familiar from the High Holiday services.) Conversely, when a righteous person gives up his proper ways and starts living a lifestyle of abomination, should he continue to reap the benefits of his previous appropriate acts? His righteous deeds will not be remembered; he will die because of his new, sinful lifestyle.
The people complain that the way of G-d is not proper (because they don’t understand it). “Now listen,” G-d says. It is not His ways that are improper; it is their way that is improper! When a righteous person gives up his proper lifestyle, he will die because of his new, evil deeds. When an evil person gives up his sinful lifestyle, he will live because of his new, righteous ways. Every person will be judged properly according to his deeds, G-d says. Give up your evil ways and encourage others to give up their evil ways so that it will not be a cause of sin to you. Throw away your sins and give yourselves a new heart and a new soul, rather than die. G-d doesn’t want anyone to die, He wants them to turn away from their sins, towards Him, and live.