Divrei Torah on the weekly portions
At the end of VaYechi we read that the exile in Egypt will end when "Pakod Yifkod", "God will surely redeem" (Bereishit 50:24). These would be the code words that would demonstrate to the leaders of the Israelites that the time for redemption had arrived. The Baal HaTurim asks what is so special about the phrase "Pakod Yifkod" and what is its correct translation?
In the Torah reading for fast days, we encounter the same verb "Pokeid" (Shemot 34:7). Interestingly, this reference occurs after the sin of the golden calf when Moshe is appealing to God's compassion and recites the 13 attributes of mercy. The standard translation of the phrase "Pokeid Avon Avot Al Banim V'Al Bnei Vanim ..." is that God "visits the sins of the ancestors on their children, their grandchildren, their great-grandchildren and their great-great-grandchildren". HaKetav VeHaKabbalah notes that to punish future generations based on the actions of their ancestors does not appear to belong in a passage about compassion? Additionally, is it morally fair to punish four generations for the sins of their predecessors?
The Baal HaTurim explains that the verb "Pakod" actually means "to be lacking", as in the phrase "VeLo Nifkad Mimenu Ish", "no-one was missing" (BeMidbar 31:49). So the code "Pakod Yifkod" means that "Pakod", i.e. 190 (in Gimatriya 80+100+6+4) years* would be missing from the scheduled 400 years of exile in Egypt (Bereishit 15:13). Their exile would only last for 210 years, as Yaakov had hinted when he said "Redu Shamah" (Bereishit 42:2), since "Redu" has Gimatriya (200+4+6=) 210. Later, when God tells Moshe to notify the elders "Pakod Pakadeti" (Shemot 3:16), the intention is that 190 years have now been reduced from the exile.
Therefore "Pokeid Avon Avot Al Banim V'Al Bnei Vanim ..." means that God reduces the sins of the previous generations through the merits of their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren. It is indeed merciful and benevolent for God to do this. We can now also understand why the Torah terms the Day of Atonement "Yom HaKippurim" in the plural, as opposed to the more logical "Yom Kippur" in the singular. On this day, two atonements can be achieved: atonement for the living and also for the benefit of the dead through their descendants' merits. (I heard this Devar Torah from Norman Turner.)
* The text of the Torah writes the word "Pakod" without the Hebrew letter "Vav" but we may include it in the Gimatriya using the principle "Yeish Eim LeMikra", i.e. we focus on the way the text is pronounced rather than the way it is spelled.