In the song “Gee, Officer Krupke” (“West Side Story”), Stephen Sondheim writes, “Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke, you gotta understand; It’s just our bringin’ up-ke, that gets us out of hand; Our mothers all are junkies, our fathers all are drunks; Golly Moses, naturally we’re punks!” Good luck getting that melody out of your head.
I am not entirely sure what Moses has to do with the Jets and Sharks. But I know, at least from parshat Ki Tetzei, that Moses would not support their claim to Officer Krupke. It is a tradition as old as time — blaming our parents for our actions (and holding children responsible for the actions of parents). And it is one that Torah seeks to dispel.
“Fathers shall not be put to death for [the actions of] their children, and children shall not be put to death for [the actions of] their fathers; every man shall be put to death for his own sin” (Deuteronomy 24:16).
While it seems only natural that parents and children bear some degree of responsibility in either direction, the Torah is introducing a revolutionary concept here — one that negates the practice of virtually every other surrounding culture, and some cultures to the present day. Dr. Jeffrey Tigay points out: “Elsewhere in ancient Near Eastern law, the notion that members of a man’s family were an extension of his own personality, rather than individuals in their own right, was sometimes taken to such an extreme that if a man harmed a member of another’s family, he was punished by the same harm being done to a member of his own family, often the corresponding member.”
Whenever some horrific event happens at the hands of a young person, there is an initial judgment: “Where were the parents, and why didn’t they stop their child?”
In the viral post “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” Liza Long attempts to relate what it is to be the parent of a child with serious mental illness. She hopes that her own words will both steer the conversation after Sandy Hook toward appropriate mental-health support and treatment, as well as challenge those who would automatically convict Adam Lanza’s family of his actions.
In recent weeks, at his sentencing hearing, Ariel Castro claimed that he was “not a monster,” in part by blaming his sickness on abuse he suffered as a child. While certainly a component of his abhorrent actions, he cannot deflect responsibility by taking the Officer Krupke defense.
Critics are quick to point out that while the verse cited here is clear, there are several other verses that portray God as “visiting the sins of fathers on sons, to the third and fourth generations.” Tradition squares the conflict by suggesting that it is God’s judgment that reflects the context of parents and children, while our human judgment (in the courts and in our hearts) must be careful not to make this dangerous transference of guilt.
In our season of preparation for the High Holy Days, the instructive element of this verse is the conclusion: Each person is accountable for his/her own actions. We are not held responsible for anyone else’s failures, and this should bring relief and encouragement. Yet, we are intended to answer for our own shortcomings, and this must inspire self-reflection — teshuvah, return.