Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 26 January 2019 / 20 Shevat 5779

Parshat Yitro

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Inherited Impact

In the second of the ten commandments, G-d warns the people of Israel to be faithful in their observance, for I am Hashem, your G-d, a G-d Who commands His exclusive rights; I remember the sin of parents for their children, for the third and fourth generation, for those who hate Me; And I practice loving-kindness unto thousands, to those who love Me and to those to keep My commandments.

Two fundamental truths are taught here regarding Divine reward and retribution. First, G-d holds us accountable for our actions, and it is in our power to build our lives or ruin them, according to our adherence to his Law; there is no escape from judgment.

But the extension of judgment to subsequent generation demands our reflection. This second fundamental teaches that the weal or woe of children depends on the parents — all according to the measure of their virtue or vice. Children’s life and fate are bound to that of the parents. Just as parents impart physical traits — desirable and undesirable, strengths and infirmities — so too do they impart spiritual ones, be it via nature or nurture.

This creates yet another incentive to aid our spiritual development. For the sake of our children we should preserve our own health; for the sake of our children we should act morally and charitable; for the sake of our children we should be spiritually vigilant and valiant.

But what of that pure soul of the child? What has that soul done to begin its journey as a fruit on the frail tree of its parents? The flawed propensities, weaknesses and defects of the parents have affected that child not only by inheritance or osmosis, but may also have compromised the child’s upbringing by depriving him of a sound emotional environment. These present the child with a formidable task, and to overcome them, the pure soul of the child must test and prove its godlike power. The parents’ sins may line the cradle of their infant, but that little citizen has the power to climb a hard steep path of trials until he prevails in the moral test.

And the journey of that fruit of a more righteous vine is just as noble. The goodness of his parents, their moral and spiritual purity and strength, form a rich and firm soil which becomes broader and firmer with the succeeding generation. This is the kindness that G-d bestows upon the offspring of those who are loyal to his Law.

Both outcomes for the next generation — the carrying over of sins, and the bestowal of kindness — are the attribute of the One G-d. He alone reckons our deeds, and He alone controls our fate. And the individual yearning, pure soul can achieve its perfection on the very road he has been placed.

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