Egyptian Children Punished for Parents' Sins?
In the Book of Exodus, God indicates that He will slay all the Egyptian first-borns if Pharaoh will not allow the Israelites to leave. Why should the son suffer for the sins of the father? This contradicts the normal concepts of justice and Jewish law. Please explain.
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
In one place, the Torah says "...each man shall die for his own sins" (Deut. 24:16), while in the Ten Commandments it says the opposite: that God "counts the sins of the fathers on the sons." (Exodus 20:5)
The Talmud explains the distinction: Children are only held accountable for their parents' misdeeds only when they perpetuate those bad actions. (Actually, the children can be held even more accountable than the parents because a bad behavior which continues for more than one generation deepens the damage to society.)
Accordingly, all the Egyptians were punished in the Ten Plagues because they participated in mistreating the Jews. Although it appeared as if Pharaoh was solely responsible for the slavery, in truth the suffering and humiliation the Jews suffered would not have been possible without collective agreement, and a national effort on the part of all Egyptians.
As for the first-born, given their influential position within the family they bear more responsibility, and were subject to an especially strong punishment.
By the way, someone who carries on their parents' bad values – but never had the opportunity to learn otherwise – is not held accountable.
(Sources: Talmud, Sanhedrin 27b; Rashi and Ibn Ezra to Exodus 20:5)