The Talmud (Makkot 24a) raises the obvious question. If Ezekiel is correct, what then happens to the idea of children being punished to the third and fourth generation? Its answer is astonishing:
Said Rabi Jose ben Hanina: “Our master Moses pronounced four [adverse] sentences on Israel, but four prophets came and revoked them … Moses said, ‘He punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.’ Ezekiel came and declared: ‘The soul that sins is the one who will die.’ ”
Moses decreed, Ezekiel came and annulled the decree! Clearly the matter cannot be that simple. After all, it was not Moses who decreed this, but God Himself. What do the sages mean?
I think they mean this: the concept of perfect justice is beyond human understanding, for the reasons already given. We can never fully know the degree of guilt. Nor can we know the full extent of responsibility. The Mishnah in Sanhedrin 4:5 says that a witness in capital cases was solemnly warned that if, by false testimony, a person was wrongly sentenced to death, he, the witness, “is held responsible for his [the accused’s] blood and the blood of his [potential] descendants until the end of time.” Nor, when we speak of Providence, is it always possible to distinguish punishment from natural consequence. A drug-addicted mother gives birth to a drug-addicted child. A violent father is assaulted by his violent son. Is this retribution or genetics or environmental influence? When it comes to Divine, as opposed to human, justice, we can never reach beyond the most rudimentary understanding – if that.
Two things are clear from God’s words to Moses. First, He is a God of compassion but also of justice – since without justice, there is anarchy, but without compassion, there is neither humanity nor hope. Second, in the tension between these two values, God’s compassion vastly exceeds His justice. The former is forever (“to thousands [of generations]”). The latter is confined to the lifetime of the sinner: the “third and fourth generation” (grandchildren and great-grandchildren) are the limits of posterity one can expect to see in a human lifetime.
What Jeremiah and Ezekiel are talking about is something else. They were speaking about the fate of the nation. Both lived and worked at the time of the Babylonian exile. They were fighting a mood of despair among the people. “What can we do? We are being punished for the sins of our forefathers.” Not so, said the prophets. Each generation holds its destiny in its own hands. Repent, and you will be forgiven, whatever the sins of the past – yours or those who came before you.
Justice is a complex phenomenon, Divine justice infinitely more so. One thing, however, is clear. When it comes to human justice, Moses, Jeremiah and Ezekiel all agree that children may not be punished for the sins of their parents. Vicarious punishment is simply unjust.