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But that only explains why the Egyptians themselves were punished.
Why should Hashem take the lives of innocent Egyptian babies in order to
penalize their fathers? What was their sin? (Question originally posed to
me by Jim Scheinman and the local Torah study group of the University of
California at Davis.) Although we can never hope to fully understand the
ways of the Creator in this world ("Because your thoughts are not able to
comprehend My thoughts... Yeshayah 55:8), we can at least try to gain
insight into the ways of Hashem by looking at the various approaches
mentioned in Rabbinical literature regarding this question.
One who ponders the Death of the Egyptian Firstborn will undoubtedly feel embittered. If the Egyptians sinned, why should their firstborn -- especially the babies -- suffer for their sins?
The answer to this question is that Hashem's intention was to do kindness to the world at large by letting them clearly witness His involvement in all that happens on this world. With the death of the firstborn, He demonstrated beyond all doubt that the Egyptians were being punished for enslaving Hashem's "firstborn," Israel (see Shmot 4:23 -MK).The beneficial lesson that the *entire world* would learn about Hashem's involvement in the world, which had in its power to grant the world as a whole continued existence, outweighed the loss of the Egyptian firstborn. [This is what the above verse means to say: "Hashem struck the firstborn of the Egyptians, notwithstanding their personal loss, because it was a kindness 'L'olam,' to the entire world!"]
Another possible approach is suggested by many Midrashic sources. In Gemara Shabbat 32b a list of sins is presented that are all punishable by the death of one's *children*. The reference is apparently to underage children [= less than 13 years old, who are not yet obligated in Mitzvot in their own right. Alternatively, this may be referring only to very young children such as infants]. Although the Torah says unequivocally "Sons shall not die for their fathers' sins" (Devarim 24:16), the Sifri limits this to children that have come of age. Minors are punished even for the sins of their fathers. See also II Samuel 12:14, which describes the death of King David's newly-born infant as retribution for the King's sin.
It would seem almost as if infants or immature children are not
surviving on their own rights. Rather, they are simply the "property" of
their parents and are liable to be "taken as collateral for their parents
debts" -- in the words of the Gemara (Shabbat 105b). At least one early
commentary clearly mentions this rationale: young children are treated as
one's property when it comes to punishing their father (Radak to Yehoshua
7:15 -- see also Ketubot 46b, Bava Metzia 12b, where the Halachic
"possession" that a parent has over his child is discussed).
As we know, although everyone has free choice to sin or not to sin, Hashem knows the outcome of that free choice before the person actually makes his decision. (See Rambam and Ra'avad, Hilchot Teshuvah end of Ch. 5.) If so, it may be suggested that Hashem need not shorten the life of a sinner's child at all in order to punish the sinner. Rather, He may have "planted" a child that had been granted only a short life in the family of a person that is going to eventually sin. The child will die because his time has come (which, obviously, nobody can consider "unethical"), yet the father suffers for *his sins* by the loss of his child. His punishment is to raise a child that will live a short life! A friend of mine pointed out to me that this view has its source in the Kabbalistic writings of the great 16th cent. Kabbalist of Safed, Rav Chaim Vital ("Pri Etz Chaim," end of Parashat Mishpatim, p. 89a, s.v. Lo Ti'ye).
(This approach is more readily understood when dealing with
children that were born *after* a man sinned. Once the man has sinned, he
may be given short-lived children as a punishment. As far as children that
were born *before* the sin are concerned, the limitations that this
approach puts on our free will have deep and complex ramifications, which
we shall not delve into at this point.)
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