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Parshas Ki Tisa recounts the episode of the golden calf, and the immediate punishment that was meted out for the sin. In addition to this, Rashi on Shemos 32:34 (quoting Sanhedrin 102a ) writes:

וְאֵין פֻּרְעָנוּת בָּאָה עַל יִשְׂרָאֵל שֶׁאֵין בָּהּ קְצָת מִפִּרְעוֹן עֲוֹן הָעֵגֶל

no punishment ever comes upon Israel in which there is not part payment for the sin of the golden calf

But how can this be? Isn't this a contradiction of Devarim 24:16, which states:

לֹֽא־יוּמְת֤וּ אָבוֹת֙ עַל־בָּנִ֔ים וּבָנִ֖ים לֹא־יוּמְת֣וּ עַל־אָב֑וֹת אִ֥יש בְּחֶטְא֖וֹ יוּמָֽתוּ׃

Parents shall not be put to death for children, nor children be put to death for parents: a person shall be put to death only for his own crime.

Even though that pasuk says "death," I remember learning that it's not just referring to death, but for punishments in general.

How can we who live in 2019 and who never sinned at the golden calf still be punished for it?

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One can use the analogy of someone who steals fails to repay the theft. He is told that as long as he does not commit any further crimes, he will not have to pay. If he does commit another crime, he will have to pay both what is owed for the future crime but also for the original debt. This is not that a person is being punished for what his ancestor did, but he is being punished for what he did as well as the debt that was already owed.

Note that when we say that a person is not punished for what his father did, that only means that he does not continue to sin.

Furthermore, this is something that applies to the entire nation, such as the meraglim or the destruction of the temple. It does not necessarily mean the sin of an individual.

The Bnai Yisrael caused themselves to be lowered in the level of spirituality by sinning with the aigel hazahav. They were not punished fully as they would have deserved. Thus, every sin (as a people) that is done, includes the results of that sin as well. For example Mikraos Gedolos Ki Sisa 32:34 cites Rav Yosef Bechor Shor

וביום פקדי ופקדתי עליהם חטאתם – כלומר: אני מוחל להם עתה, שלא יזוקו בדבר זה, כל זמן שלא יוסיפו לחטא. אבל אם יוסיפו לחטא, כשאפקד עליהם החטא שיעשו, אפקוד גם זה עמו. כאדם שאומר לחבירו: אני מוחל לך כל זמן שלא תוסף לעשות, אבל אם תוסף, לא דיי שלא אמחול, אלא שאפקוד עליך גם מה שעשית עתה.

That is to say that I will forgive them now, so that they will not be harmed by this matter, as long as they do not continue to sin. But if they continue to sin , when I judge them for the sin that they do, I will also judge this also with it. Like a person whio says to his friend: I forgive you as long as you do not continue to do [this], but if you continue, it is not enough that I will not forgive you, but I will judge what you did now.

This is like someone who receives a suspended sentence and is released on parole. If he commits another crime, his parole is revoked and he must serve the original sentence as well as whatever punishment is due to the next crime.

Rav Hirsch points out that this is a matter of the entire people having to raise themselves back to the level they had been at during matan Torah. As a result, every sin that occurs as a people needs to take into account the level that the people are at, and what has caused them to be reduced to that level.

You have to enter a future on the basis of the sin not being atoned for - a future which has to raise the people to a higher standard by passing the most testing experiences of trying events, and so attain atonement. A complete forgiveness, a lifting off of the sin, making it as if it had not occurred (נשא) would imply that the people were already back to the stage of moral elevation at which they were when they were when they received the Torah ...

Rabbi Dessler in Michtav Me'Eliyahu can explain this using the Nekudas Habechira (point of free will)

He states that a man has one point in his service to G-d where he has to fight his evil inclination, while at other points there will be no struggle, for the levels below this have already been conquered, and he will easily win those battles of will; whereas levels higher are not yet within his grasp. (For example, someone who adheres to Orthodox Judaism will have no problem keeping kosher, but may sometimes be tempted to rely on unreliable kosher supervision, while somebody farther away from religious practice will have to struggle with whether to eat a ham sandwich (which is non-kosher regardless of supervision).) Each time one defeats the evil inclination by choosing to do good over evil, his Nekudas Habechira is raised a bit higher, and that choice will be easier for him to make in the future. Consequently, Man's task in life is to consistently raise his Nekudas Habechira, thus growing ever greater in his service of God.

The chet ha'aigel lowered the nekudas habechira to such an extent that all of Bnai Yisrael was reduced to a level so that any future sin became possible only as a result of what they did. As an example, had they not allowed the chait ha'aigel to occur, they would not have panicked and sinned when the meraglim brought the bad report of the land. Indeed, it is quite possible that the meraglim themselves would not have rationalized themselves into bringing that report in the first place. Had they not sinned, they might have been able to avoid the destruction of the mishkan at Shiloh or of the temple.

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    I'm not sure this really addresses the question. The Bechor Shor's parable is nice, but it doesn't really transfer over to a case where the original sin was committed by someone else. And the explanation based on R. Dessler doesn't really address the punishment aspect. – Alex Feb 19 at 0:13
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    I still don't really understand the answer. The two premises of the question are that people who did not commit a particular sin are getting punished for that sin, and that God does not punish people for sins that they themselves have not committed. How are you reconciling these seemingly contradictory ideas? – Alex Feb 19 at 1:45
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    In Yeshaya it mentions this and we see also that Hashem punishes to the third and fourth generation. The explanation is that if a person sins then Hashem remembers what his parents and grandparents did. If they do not sin then the parents' sins are not remembered. On a national level, if the people sin, then the national sins such as the aigel still have an effect. The goyim misunderstand this as original sin. However, the result of Adam and Chava eating the fruit still has its effect down to our day. @Alex – sabbahillel Feb 19 at 4:17
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    So your answer to the contradiction is that God does punish people for sins that they did not commit? – Alex Feb 19 at 4:18
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    But I don’t think that’s what the question here was asking. – Alex Feb 19 at 4:21
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I occasionally ask people a parallel question on my way to work. "Some guy I never met stole some kind of fruit I can't even identify, and therefore I have to go to work? How can I possibly be an accomplice? I wasn't born for millennia after the theft!" (It's fun to see how long I go before the lightbulb goes on that I'm asking about Chavah and Adam's eating one of the fruit of the tree of knowledge.")

But taking the "why do I have to do this?" whine out of my question, it's much the same thing. No? Why are descendents paying for the sin of the ancestor?

The case of our still feeling the Golden Calf (or the Forbidden Fruit) goes far beyond the text in Shemos: "פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים וְעַל בְּנֵי בָנִים עַל שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל רִבֵּעִים -- who remembers [and acts on] the sin of the ancestors on the children, the grandchildren, the third [generation] and the fourth." (Shemos 37:7, Bamidbar 14:18) or "עַל בָּנִים עַל שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל רִבֵּעִים לְשֹׂנְאָי -- ... to those who hate Me (I "Hate"?)" (Shemos 20:5)

On that last verse, Rashi quotes the Targum, "כְּשֶׁאוֹחֲזִין מַעֲשֵׂה אֲבוֹתֵיהֶם בִּידֵיהֶם -- when they hold their ancestors' actions in their hands." (And then continues to note that unlike punishment, reward is not limited to 4 generations.)

But in the case of the Golden Calf, that doesn't really fit. We aren't still a bunch of idolaters. For that matter, that kind of idolatry isn't even part of the human psychological makeup anymore; as the Talmud put it, the rabbis and prophets of the Great Assembly trapped the yeitzer hara for idolatry in a lead pot. (Yuma 66b) So we can't still be feeling the punishment of the sins of our ancestors far more than 4 generations later because we aren't "holding their deeds in our hands", we aren't continuing from their example.

But there is another possibility. If my ancestor 15 generations ago had a chance to build a palace, I would could have been living in an ancient palace. But since none of them (that I know of) did build that palace, I don't have that opportunity.

Adam and Eve could have built one kind of world. We had that kind of world for 40 days with the revelation at Sinai. At least the Jewish People did, charged to bring it to everyone else. We would have lived forever. Then, with the Golden Calf, we plummeted back to the post-fruit plane of existence. This is why Medrash Tanchuma (Chuqas 8, quoted by Rashi, Bamidbar 19:22) explains the use of a red heiffer in particular is used to remove the tum'ah after contact with the dead; "מָשָׁל לְבֶן שִׁפְחָה שֶׁטִּנֵּף פָּלָטִין שֶׁל מֶלֶךְ, אָמְרוּ תָּבֹא אִמּוֹ וּתְקַנֵּחַ הַצּוֹאָה, כָּךְ תָּבֹא פָרָה וּתְכַפֵּר עַל הָעֵגֶל -- it may be [explained by a] parable of a handmaid’s child that soiled the king’s palace. They said: Let the mother come and clean up the excrement. Similarly: since they became defiled by [the Golden] Calf, let its mother [a cow] come and atone for the calf."

Our ancestors moved to a bad neighborhood, in a spiritual sense. We're stuck with what it's like to live in a bad neighborhood.

At this point, you could continue as per Rav Hirsch and R Dessler as cited in Sabba Hillel's answer. I just think this metaphor avoids many of the comments raised in answer to his post. The Bechor Shor talks about inherited debt; I think the later sources talk more in terms of what the good we failed to "inherit".

But it's time to stop worrying about why and make sure our descendents 15 generations from now aren't complaining about the palace we didn't leave them!

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