During the second 3 days of choshekh in which the darkness was tangible and the Mitzriim could not move, how did they eat? After all, an oath not to eat for 3 days is considered suspect, and we wait in expectation that the person will need to violate it. (Which is less suspect than if the oath were three days without sleep, where we give them lashes immediately and it may be violated even at the beginning, since it is inevitable that they will sleep. Still, the implication is that most people, can’t live three days without food or drink, and certainly a whole nation didn’t survive that way.) So, if the Mitzriim didn’t die, how did they eat?
The Netziv (Haameiq Davar, Shemos 11:2) asks why is it that when Hashem promises in advance that the Jews would get treasures from the Egyptians, He says (3:22) “וְשָׁאֲלָה אִשָּׁה מִשְּׁכֶנְתָּהּ — and a woman will ask/borrow from her neighbor”, but now when it happens, He tells the Jews “וְיִשְׁאֲלוּ אִישׁ מֵאֵת רֵעֵהוּ, וְאִשָּׁה מֵאֵת רְעוּתָהּ — and a man will ask/borrow from his friend, and a woman from her friend”? Why the promotion from shakhein (neighbor) to reia (friend)?
The Netziv answers that during plague of choshekh, “Yisrael, who were a light in their homes, put out (hoshitu) before them food and everything they needed. And through this, Yisrael obtained a great grace in their eyes.”
Picture what this implies about our obligations to others. The Egyptians were not fellow Jews, they were sinners who worshiped idols, engaged in all forms of sexual immorality, were murderously cruel (all three of the “be killed rather than violate” sins), our tormentors. And yet, we showed them kindness. A lesson in how to treat the other, and a lesson in just how far we should take “do not take revenge and do not and do not bear a grudge.” (Vayiqra 19:18) The prohibition is only against “a member of your people”, but we shine as children of Abaraham when we go beyond the minimum loving-kindness the Torah demands of us.
I was thinking that perhaps this could answer another question I had… Hashem promised Avraham we would leave with “great wealth” (Bereishis ). I’m sure Avraham Avinu would be happy we would end up rich, but is this really the greatest thing a tzadiq would hope for? So, I once offered a chassidishe style answer, re-punctuating a pasuq from after Makas Choshekh (11:2): “Daber na be’zanei ha’am — speak please into the ears of the nation” that they should ask, every man of their neighbor and every woman of her neighbor, gold utensils and silver utensils. And Chazal say that Hashem said “na” (please) because He “needed a favor” (so to speak) in order to fulfill His promise. So my earlier suggestion was to read the verse “say ‘please’ into the ears of the nation”, teach them to say please. Avraham, the maste of lovingkindness, would hear the words “great wealth” and expect Hashem to lead his children to kindness. The wealth was that Moshe put the word “na” in the ears of the people — teaching them to say “please”, even in this situation.
But now I could answer without playing with the punctuation or taking phrases out of context: that Avraham’s “great wealth” of lovingkindness was what the Jews learned by sustaining the Mitzrim during the plague of darkness! We refrained from vengeance when they were down. The Mitzriim didn’t come help (at least not in numbers enough to be recorded in the Torah) when we “cried out from all the work”, but we came when they needed us. As we say in Havdalah, Hashem bestowed on us a difference “between light and darkness, and between Israel and the other nations.”