Perpetual Paradise Lost
Are children punished for the sins of their parents? If not, then why are we, the children of Adam and Eve, punished for the sin of the forbidden fruit? They were banished from Gan Eden – Adam was punished to toil to earn his bread and Eve was punished to bear children in pain. Why is their punishment carried over to us till today?
The Talmud (Berachot 7a) actually discusses whether children are punished on account of their parents’ misdeeds or not. The subject is addressed in the context of why righteous people may suffer while wicked people may prosper.
The first explanation that the Talmud presents is that a righteous man may suffer as a result of the misdeeds of his father if he is what’s referred to as a “tzadik ben rasha”, a righteous man who is himself the son of a wicked man. Of course, as you suggest, it is difficult to understand why a righteous person would suffer on account of no misdeed of his own. It is for this reason that the great Talmudic commentator and Kabbalist, Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Bagdad, the Ben Ish Chai, explains that the Talmud is referring to the concept of reincarnation, whereby a righteous man endures suffering in one lifetime, which is birthed by his misdeeds in a previous reincarnation. This transferring of punishment to the soul from one reincarnation to another is metaphorically referred to as delivering the punishment of the “father” upon the “son”.
According to this explanation of the Sages, since all of humanity is a composite of the souls of Adam and Eve, their collective souls are a form of reincarnation of Adam and Eve, and thus their primordial punishment is actually transferred to themselves, i.e. us, from generation to generation, until the rectification and return to Eden will be achieved.
In continuing its discussion the Talmud in fact posits that children may literally be punished on account of their parents sins based on the verse, “He delivers the sins of the fathers upon the children” (Ex. 34:7), but notes that this contradicts another verse which states, “And children shall not die on account of their fathers” (Deut. 24:16). The Sages reconcile these seemingly contradictory verses by explaining that the later verse refers to children who are innocent of the misdeeds of their parents, while the former verse refers to children who maintain the evil ways of their parents, and by affirming these evil ways, their own punishment is compounded by that of their parents. According to this explanation of the Sages, as long as humanity maintains Adam and Eve’s rebellion against Gd, the punishment of our parents in Eden is transferred to us, their progeny.
However, it is also possible to answer your question in a way that is independent of reward and punishment, but rather based on ramification and repercussion.
Consider, for example, how you would view the situation that would have resulted from Adam and Eve’s refraining from sinning, thereby passing the test and gaining eternal reward for themselves and their progeny who would have been born into a state of perfection. Would you object to this outcome by declaring it unjust that the children, who did not contribute to their parents’ correct behavior, should benefit from the perfection achieved thereby?
Chances are you would not. Rather you would accept the benefit that would result to the children as a natural consequence and outcome of the parents’ correct decision. The same applies in the opposite direction as well. Rather than viewing the current human condition as an extension of the punishment of Adam and Eve, view it as the ramification or repercussion of their sin. In this way it may be compared to children who simultaneously inherit their parents’ wealth and liabilities. If the parents left no debts, the children inherit wealth they did nothing to earn, but if the parents departed with liabilities, the children must pay from the inheritance to make restitution for debt that their parents, not they, accrued.
Thus humanity, as a form of reincarnation of Adam and Eve, who continues to maintain our progenitors’ rebellion against G d, and in addition, independent of considerations of reward and punishment, but rather as a natural consequence of their wrong decision, finds itself in a position of suffering. Yet, as their children, we have also inherited the possibility of rectifying their misdeed, correcting their wrong and perfecting ourselves in order to bring about the return to Eden.