Parashat Ki Tetze 5777
Rabbi Daniela Szuster
Everyone should be responsible for her or his own actions
– If a child is failing in school, who should be held responsible?
– If a parent is accused of scam, should his son be frowned upon?
– If a young person who lived in a house full of violence commits an act of violence, who should be punished? Should the son, for doing so? — Or the parents, who taught him to live that way?
Parents and children build strong and deep ties, by which they pass on ways of being and behaviors that stay engraved in them for the rest of their lives. These ties develop through what is said, and what is not said; through what is done and what is not done; through what is heard and what is not heard. These ties are so deep that sometimes it is hard to divide and identify the responsibilities of those tied together.
It is written in this week’s parasha: “The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers; every man shall be put to death for his own sin” (Devarim 24:16).
According to this passage, each person is responsible for her or his own actions and their consequences.
Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno (1475-1550), an Italian rabbi, Biblical commentator, philosopher and physician, reminds us that in accordance with a custom during the monarchical era, in many societies, whoever rebelled against the kingdom was executed together with his children. The family members were seen as an extension of the person and not as different beings, who have the freedom to act as they please, regardless of their family ties.
According to Sforno, the Torah tries to uproot this unfair ruling. The Jewish monarchy behaved in a different way. An example can be found in the Book of Kings (II 14:6), where we read that King Amatsiah executed the people who plotted against him, but not their children, according the law of the Book of Moses, citing this same verse from this week’s parasha.
From this text, we can understand that in ancient times it was common practice that parents or children would be put to death because of the other’s transgressions, and our tradition was trying to change this custom with a new law.
On the other hand, Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsh (1808–1888), a German Orthodox rabbi, reflects on the great pain that children or parents suffer when a family member has committed a crime. He states that the law we are discussing here is intended to preserve the good name of family members in the social field and protect their self-esteem. So, if a parent has committed a crime, we should be clear that it’s the father and not the son, or vice-versa.
What is the Torah lesson for us here? Human beings are born as the most sensitive and vulnerable beings on earth. We need someone to embrace and protect us so we can survive. We totally depend on these first caregivers to provide us with food, love, and education. We depend so much on them that we need to contribute to and fulfill the goals they set for us. Sometimes, if we don’t do so, we feel as if we endanger the love and continuity of this relationship that allows us to survive and thrive in this world. Therefore, our own wishes get confused with the wishes of our parents and, from time to time, we don’t know what we really want for ourselves.
The Torah teaches us that each person is different, each has something distinct to contribute, and each should be responsible for their own actions, regardless of the influences that he or she received from others. If one does something, one must take responsibility for it.
In the famous episode of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, we can see the opposite behavior: nobody takes responsibility for their own actions. When God approaches Adam and questions him after he has eaten from the forbidden fruit, Adam answers: “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat” (Bereshit 3:12). Adam ate; nevertheless, he blames God for giving him “that woman,” and blames the woman who gave him the fruit. He does not take responsibility for the decision he made or for his actions.
The same way, when God approaches Eve, she answers: “The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat” (Bereshit 3:13). She blames the snake for what she did. It is true that the snake provoked her, it is true that Eve offered Adam the fruit, but it is also true that both, freely, chose to eat from the forbidden fruit, knowing that it was banned.
Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the snake. That was the huge mistake, not standing forth and recognizing the mistake of their actions.
A great deal of what we do in our lives comes from different influences on us, but we are the ones who choose, and we are the ones who act upon them. Therefore, only we can be penalized or rewarded.
In this sense, and following the passage that we are analyzing, we should not judge a son for what his parent did or judge a parent for what his son did; each person must be judged individually.
Now, as we approach the Yamim Noraim, High Holidays, as we assess our actions during the year that is ending, it is important that we remember this important value in our tradition: each one of us is responsible for our own actions, for what we did and for what we didn’t do, for what we said or didn’t say. As we recall our transgressions, let’s be honest and brave, and accept our responsibility with humility and sincerity.