The Sins of the Fathers and of the Sons

  • Harav Baruch Gigi



In memory of Rabbi Moshe ben Avraham Shraga Furst z”l

Niftar 17 Tammuz 5771.

Dedicated by his family.



Dedicated by the Wise and Etshalom families

in memory of Rabbi Aaron M. Wise,

whose yahrzeit is 21 Tammuz. Yehi zikhro barukh.


Adapted by Lavi Bigman

Translated by Kaeren Fish


Repentance and Fasting

In his Laws of Fasts (5:1), the Rambam teaches:

“There are days when all of Israel fasts because of troubles that occurred on those days, in order to arouse the hearts and to open paths of repentance, that this should be a remembrance for our evil actions and the actions of our forefathers, which were like our actions now, causing these troubles for them and for us. Through remembrance of these things we should return to the proper path, as it is written: ‘And they shall confess their transgression and the transgression of their fathers…’”

From this Rambam we see that fasting and repentance are intertwined. The fasting is meant to remind us of our evil deeds and the deeds of our ancestors which led to the troubles which have befallen the Jewish nation, and this in turn should arouse us to repentance. However, a deeper look at the Rambam reveals two connections, not one.

As noted, one connection is that between fasting and repentance. In general, we may view a fast day as an occasion of remembrance of disaster. We recall the terrible events which have befallen the Jewish nation during different periods of history. This contemplation leads to great sorrow, such that the fast day assumes a sad and mournful nature.

But the Rambam does not highlight the element of mourning; rather, he focuses on the view towards the future – the conclusions that a person should draw from the remembrance of the troubles of the past. A person should analyze those catastrophes, contemplate them, understand what caused them, and thereby arouse himself to repent.

“Our deeds and the deeds of our forefathers”

Rambam draws an additional connection:

“… that this should be a remembrance for our evil actions and the actions of our forefathers, which were like our actions now, causing these troubles for them and for us.”

At first glance, what we understand from this is that our forefathers sinned, and as a result they suffered various catastrophes. Like our ancestors, we too, in our times, commit similar transgressions, and it may be that remembering the disasters of the past will lead us to think about the troubles that befall us in the present.

However, this is not what the Rambam seems to be saying. It seems that the five major tragedies which befell our ancestors on the 17th of Tammuz were the result of the deeds of our forefathers and our own deeds as well. How are we to understand this statement?

The Rambam presents here a panoramic view of history. He views Knesset Yisrael as an organic unit, to which units of time, in the ordinary sense of the term, have no relevance. Everything that happens to Knesset Yisrael throughout the generations is the result of different times and different events. When the perspective is all-encompassing, we can understand that troubles are the result of our actions along with the actions of our forefathers.

In a certain sense, this idea connects to Chazal’s teaching: “Every generation in which [the Temple] is not rebuilt is considered as having been responsible for its destruction” (Yerushalmi Yoma 1,1).

In other words, if we have not yet achieved healing from the disasters that occurred in the past, apparently our transgressions in the present grow out of the same roots as those which brought about the destruction. Therefore, a generation in which the Temple is not rebuilt would be deserving of having the Temple destroyed in its lifetime. Hence, our own actions “cause” the destruction of the Temple – in the sense that it is not yet rebuilt – even in our own times.

This view requires us to contemplate and analyze the sins of our forefathers and their foundations, we well as our own sins as individuals and as a collective. So long as a sin is not yet corrected, so long as we have not yet merited a solution to those catastrophes, we may say that through our own actions we are contributing, to some degree, to those very catastrophes and to their persistent effects.

The point of the fast, then, is to lead us to repent and to view events through a super-historical perspective. We must acknowledge the continuation of the destruction: although we have merited a certain national revival, we have not yet merited the rebuilding of the Temple and the restoration of the Divine service. We have not yet witnessed a restoration of the glory of Torah, we do not have a Sanhedrin, and we have not yet seen the end of suffering and anguish.

If we look at our own generation, we are very far removed from the ideal reality of a nation living in its land, loyal to God and to His Torah. We have not yet merited to “establish the words of this Torah, to perform them,” such that they become the portion of the entire nation. We have not yet reached a situation in which the entire nation views the Torah in its proper stature, as a wondrous, restorative, holistic, upright and joyful teaching.

Chazal teach:

“Five things befell our forefathers on the 17th of Tammuz: the Tablets were broken; the daily sacrifice ceased; the city (Jerusalem) was breached; Apostomus burned the Torah; and an idol was placed in the Temple.” (Ta’anit 26a)

If we examine these events, three points become evident.

We arrive at the first point via the breaking of the Tablets (as the result of the sin of the golden calf) and the placing of an idol in the Temple. Both of these catastrophes are expressions of a fundamental flaw in Am Yisrael’s loyalty to service of God and cleaving to God. Furthermore, if Apostomus burned the Torah, apparently the nation’s bond with the Torah was not sufficiently strong, not sufficiently experiential and existential.

A second point pertains to the breaching of the city, which was the direct result of the terrible internecine struggles amongst Am Yisrael and within the besieged city of Jerusalem. The groups involved in these internal struggles were not able, even at the critical moment of truth, to join forces in order to fight the Romans who were besieging the gates of Jerusalem. These struggles, this civil war, were ultimately what led to the breaching of the walls of the city.

Prayer and crying out are integral to a fast day, as Rambam teaches at the beginning of his Laws of Fasts:

“It is a positive commandment from the Torah to cry out and to sound the trumpets for every trouble that befalls the community, as it is written: ‘…Regarding the enemy who oppresses you, you shall sound the trumpets…’ In other words, for anything that causes you sorrow – such as drought, or pestilence, or locusts, etc. – cry out, and sound [the trumpets]. And this is one of the ways of repentance: that when trouble comes, they cry out because of it and sound the trumpets, and everyone knows that it is because of their evil deeds that things are bad for them… and it is this which causes them to remove the trouble from upon them.” (1:1-2)

According to the Rambam, while the declaration and observance of a fast day are by rabbinical decree, the obligation of crying out is a biblical commandment. “From the depths I call out to You, O Lord”; “A prayer of the afflicted, when he faints, and pours out his supplication before the Lord.” We appeal to God to hear our cries and our prayers. We call to God to take note of our affliction and to fight our battle, so that we may merit to see the raising of the horn of Israel.

Cleaving to God

If we wish for God to hear our cry and act on our behalf, we must remember the points discussed above. First, we must strengthen our connection to Torah. In yeshiva, we have spent the last while discussing tefillin and tzitzit, and the essence and purpose of these mitzvot is to create a bond between a person and God: “And all the nations of the world will see that the Name of God is called upon you, and they shall fear you.” A person wraps himself, as it were, in God Himself: “Bind them upon your neck; write them upon the tablet of your heart” (Mishlei 3:3).

Those tefillin and mezuzot must be “bound up” upon our throats and upon the tablets of our heart. The words which must be placed opposite the heart are meant to become part of the heart; they should enter a person’s mind and heart. This binding to which we strive must come from a desire to cleave to God with devotion, excitement and enthusiasm.

“Seek the Lord when He is found; call upon Him when He is near” (Yishayahu 55:6). Divine service requires seeking and calling. It requires active calling, and seeking which flows from the depths of the heart. Only through developing a profound connection to Torah, and creating a community of Torah scholars and bringing Torah to the nation, can we correct our transgressions. That is one element.

Jewish unity

Another process relates to divisiveness, to the relationship between one person and another. We must feel a sense of identification, of unity of ranks, of caring:

“Is it a fast such as this that I have chosen? A day for man to afflict his soul? Is it in order that he may bow his head like a bulrush, and spread sackcloth and ashes? Is it a day such as this that you will call a fast, and a day of favor unto God? Is not this rather the fast that I choose: loosening the chains of wickedness; undoing the bands of the yoke, and letting the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke. Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the bitterly poor into your home; seeing the naked and covering him, and not hiding yourself from your own flesh? Then your light shall break forth like morning, and your health shall soon sprout, and your righteousness shall go forth before you; the glory of God will follow on… If you draw out your soul for the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul, then your light shall shine forth in the darkness, and your gloom will be like noon (sun).” (Yishayahu 58:5-10)

The prophet speaks of sympathy for and sensitivity towards the distress of others, social injustices, uprightness and fairness between people, in every possible sphere. A person’s aspiration should be to attain the level described by the Ramban in his commentary on the verse, "And you shall do what is upright and good in the eyes of God”: in every action that a person does, he must have the image of God before him.

But the aspiration should not be limited to the level of injustice. A person should also aspire to be goodhearted, to be generous, sensitive and caring towards those around him. In our community, we recently experienced a tragedy due to careless driving. We must with more care towards our neighbors; we must feel that we are all one. We all have the same Father; the same God created all of us. This sensitivity should be a cornerstone of our behavior.

“The daily sacrifices” – a great principle in the Torah

There was another event that occurred on the 17th of Tammuz: the cessation of the daily sacrifices.

We read in parashat Pinchas: “You shall offer the one lamb in the morning and you shall offer the other lamb in the evening” (Bamidbar 28:4).

Rav Amital would often quote the midrash teaching that “this is a great principle in the Torah”: the idea of regularity, permanence and conscientiousness in Divine service. All the elements we have discussed – prayer, Torah, sensitivity towards every person – dare not be momentary, isolated endeavors. There must be a profound, fixed, permanent connection. The continual service of a person who offers a lamb in the morning and a lamb in the evening is a condition for God bringing His Divine Presence to rest upon the land, as expressed in the offering of the daily sacrifice: “…where I shall meet with you.” A person’s ‘daily service’ leads to that same permanent Divine Presence in the Mikdash, the dwelling-place which God desires for Himself in this world.

“Zion shall be redeemed with justice”

“My son, do not forget my teaching; let your heart keep my commandments. For they shall add to you length of days and years of life, and peace. Let kindness and truth not forsake you; bind them around your neck; write them upon the tablet of your heart, and find grace and good understanding in the eyes of God and of man.” (Mishlei 3:1-5)

All of the elements we have discussed – Torah, Divine service, kindness – are intertwined and bound up in the demand for a spiritual commitment and bond, and writing upon the tablet of the heart, leading to a connection of “grace and good understanding.”

We anticipate and pray for the rebuilding of Jerusalem. This is what we are waiting for, and its rebuilding will bring our consolation. We anticipate that Jerusalem of which it is written, “For Torah shall emerge from Zion, and God’s word from Jerusalem” – the Jerusalem of justice and righteousness. If we are able to draw lessons from the events that befell our forefathers and which befall us, if we internalize their message, if we are able to serve God through Torah and prayer, if we are able to find “grace and good understanding in the eyes of God and of man,” then “Zion will be redeemed through justice, and her captives through righteousness.”

(This sicha was delivered on 17 Tammuz 5770 [2010].)