Even those of us who have had the experience of turning on a faucet in the morning and finding that, due to digging by a local utility company, the water pouring into our sink is temporarily dark brown, only vaguely value the role water plays in our lives. For one thing, we are confident that within a few short hours the water will be clear again; in addition, we can easily reach for bottled water to serve our immediate needs.
Yet in reality, without steady access to clean water we could not exist, and how grateful we should be to the Ribbono shel Olam for the great gift of water and all the many chassadim the Ribbono shel Olam does with us on a daily basis, most of which we take for granted.
Hakaras hatov, feeling gratitude and acting upon the feeling, is fundamental to Torah hashkafah.
When the Ribbono shel Olam brought the first of the 10 plagues upon the Mitzriyim, he instructed that Aharon rather than Moshe Rabbeinu take the staff and strike the water in the river, turning it to blood.
The next time it was once again Aharon who struck the water and brought on the second plague, frogs. The third plague, which involved striking the dust of the land to produce an infestation of lice, was once again entrusted to Aharon.
Why Aharon Hakohen and not Moshe Rabbeinu?
Rashi explains that since the river protected Moshe Rabbeinu when he was cast into it as a baby, it was not right for him to strike it! Similarly, Rashi explains that the soil did not deserve to be stricken by Moshe Rabbeinu because it also once protected him; when he killed the Mitzri who was assaulting one of his brethren, he hid the body in the sand.
We learn from this that the purpose of hakaras hatov is not simply to make a benefactor feel valued and rewarded. After all, unlike humans, water and sand have no feelings. Aharon was assigned to do the striking, not because of how they would feel or think, but because of the obligation of Moshe Rabbeinu to exhibit hakaras hatov and teach Klal Yisrael a lesson for all generations.
On occasion, when someone does us a favor we rationalize our decision not to exhibit hakaras hatov by recalling all the bad things he did to us at other times. After all, one reasons, the petty favor is lost in the huge pile of evil deeds.
Yet the Torah teaches us otherwise: “You should not abhor a Mitzri for you were a sojourner in his land.” (Devarim (23:8).
Our ancestors suffered long, pain-filled years of persecution and slavery at the hands of the Mitzriyim. Yet as Rashi (ibid.) states, even though they cast our firstborns into the river we are forbidden to totally abhor them, and fourth-generation converts among them may marry into the kahal. The reason? Because in a time of pressing need — at the time of the great famine — they served as our hosts. Hakaras hatov is needed!
The Meshech Chochmah teaches that when Hashem struck Mitzrayim with the plague of blood, the palace of Pharaoh was exempted. Why? Because the Egyptains managed to survive the plague by purchasing water from Bnei Yisrael. Since Pharaoh had raised Moshe Rabbeinu in his palace, spending money on him, he was rewarded by not having to spend money to buy water.
Last week we learned that when Yisro asked his daughters why they returned home earlier than expected they told him, “An Egyptian man saved us from the shepherds.”
In explaining this passuk, Chazal give a parable of the man who was bitten by a wild animal and rushed to the river to immerse his feet. There he found a child in the act of drowning, and reached out to rescue him.
“If not for you I would have died,” said the grateful child.
“It was not I who rescued you,” the man replied, “but the animal that bit me and caused me to flee to the river.”
So too, when the daughters of Yisro expressed their gratitude to Moshe Rabbeinu he responded by deferring their gratitude elsewhere:
In coming to the aid of one of his brethren, Moshe Rabbeinu had killed an evil Egyptian overseer, and was forced to flee for his life to Midian, where he came to the aid of Yisro’s daughters.
The long-dead Egyptian certainly had had no intention of being of assistance to the daughters of Yisro. Yet he deserved their gratitude nonetheless, for he — albeit inadvertently and indirectly — was the agency for their rescue.
Thus, “It is the Egyptian whom I killed that saved you,” Moshe told Yisro’s daughters. And so they told their father, “An Egyptian man saved us…”
Let us be grateful to our Creator for the roof over our heads, for every sip of water we take, and most of all for the gift of life itself.