Lamentations: First Kinah – Line 13
“Our fathers have sinned and are no more…but we bear their iniquities.” Rambam : “There are days on which all Jews fast because of all the troubles that occurred on those days. This is to stir their hearts to open
to the paths of Teshuva and to remember our evil actions and those of our fathers’ whose ways were similar to ours now. These sins caused these troubles for them and for us.” The purpose of fasting is to remember our sins and to repent. One of the keys is to realize how each suffering was a direct response to a sin. This Kinah lists terrible things that happened to us and to which sin they were a response.
Yechezkail : “The person who sins, he alone shall die. A child shall not share the burden of a parent’s guilt, nor shall a parent share the burden of a child’s guilt; the righteousness of the righteous shall be accounted to him alone, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be accounted to him alone.”
Eicha Rabba : The Midrash reads the first half of this stanza as a conversation: “Our fathers sinned!” They meant that the sins were their fathers’ and not theirs. To which God answers, “They are no more!” They are not alive; you are the ones sinning now. The Midrash then offers an alternative conversation combining both halves of the stanza, “The fathers said to the children, “You exist in our merit and now you want us to bear the burden of your sins!”
This stanza raises the issue of the responsibility that children carry for their fathers’ sins. The general approach is that children bear such responsibility only when they follow in the ways of their fathers’ . When children continue their fathers’ ways they are giving more reality to those actions. They are allowing those actions to live on. This is true for both good and evil. Fathers can achieve merit through their children’s’ actions. They are also responsible if their children continue in evil ways.
What are supposed to think after times of destruction? Are we obligated to look at the ways of the generation that suffered and try to understand why they suffered? This is extremely difficult when we see our ancestors as holy people who were much greater than we can ever aspire to be. How can we look at the generations of holy people who suffered the Crusades and determine what they were doing wrong so that we can change? How can we even claim that they suffered because of their sins? This becomes even more difficult when we examine more recent events in history, events that boggle the imagination. Events such as the Holocaust. Who would dare say that they suffered because of their sins? Who would dare say that we know what they did wrong and that we can be better?
Yet, we are told to take this exact approach when trying to understand the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem, destructions that were even more devastating than the Holocaust in terms of their impact on the Jewish People for generations. The descriptions of the suffering during the sieges of Jerusalem and the ensuing exile and literal sale into servitude for generations equal the destruction of the Holocaust in everything except the modern technology of the Nazis. The slaughter was the same. The torture and humiliation was no different. If we can look at the reasons for the destruction of Jerusalem, examine the ways of those holy generations, than surely we can look at the generation of the Holocaust as well. This in and of itself is an important lesson of this verse in Eicha.
There are those who say that the destruction was a punishment for Reform Judaism and Zionism. Yet, the majority of those who died were observant Jews. If we are to take the approach of this verse and of the numerous times that the Talmud asks the reason for the destruction and exile we must ask what was wrong with even the holiest of Jews who suffered such terrible devastation. If we take such an approach we are automatically being critical of those who say that our approach must be to rebuild what European Jewry in greater numbers.
This approach says that there was something missing in the Service of God of even that holy and honored generation. Rebuilding what was without asking what was missing is to ignore the fact that destruction took place.
When we determine what was wrong with that generation we will gain insight into what is missing in our generation as well.