Every year, when these two verses of the Torah come back around, I wrestle with them. This year, let’s wrestle with the verses together: You shall not bow down to them or serve them — for I the Eternal your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me, but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments (Exodus 20:5-6).
These verses of Torah are so striking because it appears as though these verses portray a God of limited compassion. Even worse, God seems to punish people who are guilty only by virtue of lineage. Where is the God who gives individual freedom along with individual responsibility? What do we do with these verses in our tradition?
Many translations (i.e., Hertz, Alter, Fox, RSV and King James) render the translation of our “impassioned God” as “jealous God.” So, let’s ask ourselves: Is God vengeful or just envious? Always when struggling with a Torah verse, we turn to the 12th-century Torah commentator Rashi. He also interprets the Hebrew to mean jealous, but he is careful to note that God is not jealous in the same way that a human is jealous. Such typical understandings of jealousy, he says, are human frailties. Rather, God is seeking to exact punishment for idolatry, specifically.
OK, so let’s take Rashi’s teaching and play it out. What about the idea that subsequent generations of idolaters are punished? Do they not have an opportunity to make their own religious choices? According to Targum Onkelos, “of those who reject Me” refers to those subsequent generations only if the children also transgress God’s commandments. In this reading, the text speaks to the powerful influence of parents on their children’s behavior, rather than children’s reward and punishment based on the actions of their parents.
And, Modern Torah commentator Rabbi Plaut notes that “visiting the guilt” can mean “remembering.” Perhaps. God does not explicitly punish future generations for the previous one’s sins, but does hold something of a grudge. This plays into guilt by association that occurs within families or peer groups or faith communities adversely affected by the perverse actions of an individual member. We live in a world of interdependence, of invisible connections that refuse to allow any one of us to live a life of solitary confinement. For example, the manner in which we relate to our natural environment has consequences that extend at least to the third and fourth generation.
So, is this text a threat meant to frighten us or a promise intended to guide us, or both? Sometimes we act out of fear. Other times we act out of love. Apparently, one divine strategy is to do whatever is necessary to produce the desired result. I believe the God of the Torah relates to us by taking on human emotions, in part because we respond to emotional appeals. If Torah is designed to speak to us, then it must speak in languages that we understand, and prominent, if not preeminent among them is the language of emotion. A God that feels is a God that cares.
I believe the lesson is good influence endures much longer than an evil one. These verses of Torah remind us that our reputation, for good and for bad, precedes us. Too many people have a long memory for the mistakes of others, longer than for the virtues of others. God is qualitatively different from human beings. God’s attribute of mercy outweighs God’s attribute of justice. And that is a wrestling match that results in (more) blessings. JN
Rabbi Jeremy Schneider is the spiritual leader of Temple Kol Ami in Scottsdale and currently serves as co-treasurer of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Phoenix.