When the Ribbono shel Olam brought the first of the Ten Plagues upon the Mitzriyim, he instructed that it be Aharon rather than Moshe who would take the staff and strike the water in the river, turning it into blood.
At the next plague, it was once again Aharon who struck the water, bringing on the frogs. The third plague, which involved striking the dust of the land and creating an infestation of lice, was also entrusted to Aharon.
Why not Moshe Rabbeinu?
Rashi explains that since the river protected Moshe when he was cast into it as an infant, it would be wrong for him to strike it. Similarly, the soil protected him when he killed the Mitzri who was assaulting one of his brethren when he hid the body in the sand.
These eternal words of Chazal teach us a crucial lesson: One must never harm anything that had ever been helpful to him. As the Gemara (Bava Kamma 92b) relates: Rava said to Rabbah bar Mari, “From where do we learn ‘Do not throw a clod of earth into a well from which you drank?’” Rabba bar Mari replied, “You should not abhor a Mitzri, for you were a sojourner in his land” (Devarim 23:8).
Our ancestors suffered long and painful years of slavery and persecution at the hands of the Mitzriyim. But as Rashi states (ibid), “Even though they cast our firstborns into the river, we are forbidden to totally abhor them, and fourth-generation converts are accepted from this nation.” The reason? Because in a time of pressing need — at the time of the great famine — they served as our hosts.
It would appear — if Chazal wouldn’t tell us otherwise — that there should be no requirement of gratitude here. For one thing, it was our ancestor, Yosef Hatzaddik, who was endowed by Hashem with the wisdom to deal with the famine. Furthermore, it was only the grain in Yosef’s storehouses that remained edible, and no other. And surely any good we had from them was long since eclipsed by the savage viciousness with which they treated us.
Later on in history, Egyptians came before Alexander Mukdon (Alexander the Great). They argued that since Bnei Yisrael had only “borrowed” their gold, silver and valuables when they left Mitzrayim, the value of these goods should be returned to them. Geviha ben Pesisa asked permission to present the defense on behalf of the Jews. Pointing out that six hundred thousand of our ancestors worked four hundred and thirty years for Egypt and were never paid, he demanded their wages, which were certainly far greater than the value of all that Bnei Yisrael had “borrowed” from the Mitzriyim.
The Egyptians were unable to come up with an answer and fled, leaving behind sown fields and planted vineyards, especially useful to the Jews as it was a Shemittah year.
(The Chida wonders about the 430 years mentioned by Geviha. Our ancestors were actually in Mitzrayim for 210 years, and of these, they were enslaved for only 86 years. He explains that 600,000 was the number of adult male members who left Mitzrayim, but this constituted only one-fifth of the Bnei Yisrael who were actually enslaved, as four-fifths did not merit to leave and died during makkas Choshech. Five times 86 is 430, and therefore Geviha’s calculation was accurate.)
According to Chazal, it is clear that it is Mitzrayim that “owes” us, and not the reverse.
Yet in spite of all that we suffered at the hands of the Egyptians, and all the slave labor we did on their behalf, there is still is a requirement of hakaras hatov.
Deeds are not weighed on a scale, so that the one who does “more” is owed hakaras hatov. Rather, each deed done for another calls for separate, eternal gratitude.
This obligation is broad. As we see from Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon Hakohen, it applies even to inanimate objects that have neither feelings to be hurt nor free will to decide whether or not to be helpful.
An example brought by Hagaon Harav Chaim Shmulevitz, zt”l, (Sichas Mussar) is the tale of Og, the giant-king of Bashan who led his nation out to do battle with Bnei Yisrael. The Ribbono shel Olam assured Moshe Rabbeinu that he did not have to fear Og, and he did indeed defeat him in battle.
The Gemara (Niddah 61a) explains why Moshe Rabbeinu feared Og. Og, who lived an extraordinarily long life (he was a survivor of the Mabul), was the one who came to tell Avraham Avinu that his nephew Lot had been captured. While Og’s intention was villainous — he was hoping that Avraham Avinu would be killed in battle and he would get to marry Sarah Imeinu — yet Moshe Rabbeinu feared that hakaras hatov was due him because he did in fact provide a service for Avraham Avinu, and the descendants of Avraham would therefore be in danger if they went out to battle against him.
May we merit to adequately express, in our feelings and actions, the gratitude due to all those from whom we benefit.