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Jewish Insights into the High Priest’s Breastplate, Exodus 4:14 by Dr. Terry Harm


Envy is a Poison

Envy, a corrosive emotion that erodes the very essence of one's being, originates from the profound depths of consciousness, transcending mere jealousy. Envy and jealousy are distinct emotions linked to insecurity and comparison. Envy arises from desiring what others have, often due to low self-esteem. It can lead to bitterness and resentment. Jealousy, conversely, stems from fearing the loss of something owned, like a relationship. It emerges when there's a perceived threat to an existing bond. This can trigger controlling behaviors. Envy desires, jealousy protects. Both involve insecurity and comparison, but envy focuses on wanting, while jealousy concentrates on guarding. Scholarly investigations reveal that envy emerges as a reaction to witnessing another individual possess the achievements, talents, or attributes that we yearn for. (1)


We must watch out, because envy can make you react defensively in sneaky ways like not being thankful, using irony, showing disrespect, acting snobbish, and being overly self-centered. All of these reactions have one thing in common: using a feeling of dislike to make yourself feel better about others having qualities you don't. Spiritually speaking, the Apostle Paul includes envy and jealousy in his list of the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-21).


The Peril of Moses

The historical account of Moses, the younger sibling of Aaron by a span of three years, mirrors a remarkable narrative of destiny and divergence. Their upbringing, however, diverged dramatically. Separated from his kin at birth, Moses was cast adrift in a reed vessel, navigating the currents of the Nile to elude peril (Exodus 21-10). Destiny interceded, as Pharaoh's daughter discovered and adopted him, irrevocably shaping his trajectory.


The Privilege of Moses

Within the lavish embrace of privilege, Moses reveled in opulence. Draped in resplendent garments and savoring the finest culinary offerings fit for royalty, his existence bore the trappings of Pharaoh himself. Imbibing the finest education, the realm of Egypt could bestow upon a scion of the ruling lineage, Moses was nurtured for a purpose beyond the realm of his birthright. It was a purpose defined by providence itself—a clarion call from the divine to emancipate the children of God from the clutches of Egyptian oppression.


The Impediment of Moses

Nevertheless, Moses bore an imperfection—a physical anomaly conceivably manifesting as a speech impediment (Exodus 4:10). The specter of stuttering cast its shadow upon his communication. In this realm of vulnerability, his elder brother Aaron emerged as a steadfast ally, assuming the mantle of spokesperson. Within this delicate interplay of fraternal dynamics, a juncture was reached where envy could have burgeoned. Aaron, as the elder, might have wrestled with his sense of inadequacy, as his brother's commanding persona assumed a pivotal role. He might have begrudged his position as the understudy to Moses' preeminence. Yet, remarkably, the wellspring of envy did not taint Aaron's disposition.


Aaron: a Glad Heart

Instead of yielding to the caustic grasp of envy, Aaron stood as the antithesis to envy, jealousy, resentment, and covetousness. Aaron's heart was "glad," (Exodus 4:14) as he bore witness to Moses' ascent into prominence. His soul exuded contentment for his brother's newfound stature, an embodiment of magnanimity that remains etched in sacred history.


Exodus 4:10-14 JPS 1917

And Moses said unto the LORD: ‘Oh Lord, I am not a man of words, neither heretofore, nor since Thou hast spoken unto Thy servant; for I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue.’ And the LORD said unto him: ‘Who hath made man’s mouth? or who maketh a man dumb, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? is it not I the LORD? Now therefore go, and I will be with thy mouth, and teach thee what thou shalt speak.’ And he said: ‘Oh Lord, send, I pray Thee, by the hand of him whom Thou wilt send.’ And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses, and He said: ‘Is there not Aaron thy brother the Levite? I know that he can speak well. And also, behold, he cometh forth to meet thee; and when he seeth thee, he will be glad (sameach) in his heart.


A Heart Fit for a Breastplate

Upon witnessing his younger brother, Aaron, a profound sense of joy inundated his heart. Displayed was an external manifestation of profound delight and unrestrained rejoicing. The scriptural reference Exodus 28:29 establishes that both Aaron and his successive progeny were destined to don the Breastplate of Judgment.

This breastplate would be suspended, through gold chains, from twin shoulder stones and precisely emplaced directly above the heart (known as "lib·bōw"). In the context of the ancient Hebrews, the heart symbolized the innermost sanctum of the human spirit, where potent emotions, including envy, could find their origin.



Aaron Rewarded for a Good Heart

Rabbinical literature aptly underscores the rationale behind bestowing upon Aaron the solemn duty and exalted privilege of assuming the mantle of the first High Priest. This choice was rooted in the untarnished nature of his heart, unmarred by the insidious influence of envy. As the inaugural intermediary for the twelve tribes, Aaron assumed the sacred role of High Priest, gaining access to the Holy Place while adorned in the eight resplendent garments, symbolizing his ministration on their behalf. The Talmud, Shabbat 139a 14 records the words of Rabbi Mallai,


And Rabbi Mallai said: It is stated in the verse: “And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses, and He said: Is there not Aaron your brother the Levite, I know that he can surely speak, and also behold, he is coming out to greet you, and he will see you and be glad in his heart” (Exodus 4:14). Rabbi Mallai taught that as reward for Aaron’s lack of jealousy at seeing his brother Moses rise to greatness, as it is stated: “And he will see you and be glad in his heart,” he merited to become the High Priest, and for the breastplate of judgment to rest on his heart. (2)


Good Heart but Poor Judgment

The divine decree by God, designating Aaron as the recipient of the sacred honor bestowed by wearing the breastplate of judgment, as recounted in Exodus 4, might appear unexpected when juxtaposed with the episode depicted in Exodus 32. This particular instance exposes Aaron's involvement in a grievous lapse of discernment, where he played a role in the ill-fated construction of the golden calf.

During this regrettable event, Aaron's judgment veered awry, as he yielded to the influence of a mixed multitude. This group's impatience regarding Moses' descent from the mountain seemingly swayed Aaron's decision-making. Tragically, his lapse led him to orchestrate the creation of the golden calf, an embodiment of Taurus—one of the twelve zodiac signs revered as deities by the Egyptians.


This episode stands as an unequivocal error in judgment, with the golden calf embodying a misguided choice that has enduringly echoed through the annals of history. Even in this moment of poor judgment, the Lord saw the condition of Aaron’s heart. King David, who exercised poor judgment on several occasions, is still known by one phrase in the Bible, a man after God’s heart.


“The LORD has sought for himself a man after his own heart, and the LORD has appointed him to be prince over his people” 1 Samuel 13:14 NET Bible


“After removing him, God raised up David their king. He testified about him: 'I have found David the son of Jesse to be a man after my heart, who will accomplish everything I want him to do.'” Acts 13:22 NET Bible


Aligned with God's Intentions

Aaron, while not devoid of imperfections, distinctly exemplified a profound alignment with God's intentions. As the bearer of the breastplate of judgment - a symbol that sought atonement for lapses in discernment (Babylonian Talmud Zevachim 88:B). Aaron embraced this weighty emblem intimately against his chest. In the course of his priestly duties, he did so with a compassionate spirit, free from any inclination towards judgmentalism.


In his role as High Priest, Aaron acted as an intermediary on behalf of a community characterized by its inherent strengths and vulnerabilities. Despite these intricacies, their collective hearts earnestly yearned for a deeper connection with the Divine.


Invariably, with each day that Aaron dedicated to his service within the Tabernacle, he engaged in reflective practice. This encompassed not only the ministration for others but also an introspective consideration of his fallibilities and needs. This contemplative process found a tangible expression as he cleansed his hands and feet in the copper laver, an act laden with symbolism. Throughout these practices and responsibilities, envy found no foothold within Aaron's soul. His character was shaped by a humility that overshadowed any potential seeds of resentment or jealousy.


Conclusion

All of us have skeletons in our closet. Everyone has a past. Some people's skeletons rattle louder in the closet than others. When God raised you up out of the spiritual darkness you were in he knew you were not perfect. You were and are a work in progress. What matters is the condition of your heart.


Are you hard-hearted when it comes to your spiritual life and relationship with God? Are you sensitive and your intentions are to serve him in all you do? "Man looks at the outward appearance but the Lord looks at the heart." (1 Samuel 16:7). The Lord is looking for those who have a heart yielded to him, not those who believe they are perfect. Stop beating yourself up for the past. Release the past to God and he will take care of your heart condition. Are you a person after God's own heart?


Lord may the spirit of envy never take root in our hearts.

Let us be glad in our hearts when we see our peers succeed and be elevated by you.

Amen



References

(1) mith, Susan K. "Envy: The Spoiling Emotion." Psychology Today, 11 May 2020,


Neel, Rawn. "Do You Suffer from Envy? A 7-Question Inventory." Psychology Today, 21 February 2023, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/insight-is-2020/202302/do-you-suffer-from-envy-a-7-question-inventory.


(2) Sefaria. "Shabbat 139a.14 - Soncino 1961 Edition." Sefaria, n.d. Web. accessed 17, August 2023. www.sefaria.org/Shabbat.139a.14?lang=bi.

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