May 24, 2019

The Inner Pharaoh and the The Truth Within

The Inner Pharaoh and Truth Within

The Jewish tradition loves serious play with words. This week’s Torah portion begins with the phrase in English “Go to Pharaoh” to tell him to let the Israelites go. The problem is, the Hebrew is “bo el Paro” which literally means “come to Pharaoh”, not “go to Pharaoh.” The biblical Hebrew word “bo”, apparently, can means “come” as well as “go.”  Academically speaking.

The spiritual tradition sees it differently. If God says, “come”, one is called to move toward God. “Come – to Pharaoh” is interpreted to mean, “Come to Me, but through Pharaoh.”  What does this mean?

Pharaoh is interpreted, from a spiritual perspective, to refer to those forces within that compel us act in destructive ways, forces that are hidden in the unconscious realm. The “inner Pharaoh” oftentimes drives our lives. If one meaning of the idea “coming toward God” is living a life of truth, there is no life of truth without first coming to terms with hidden motivations. The idea of facing the truth of inner motivations is a key element of Jewish spiritual psychology.

I remember one of the most profound days of rabbinical school for me. In a homiletics class (a class about giving talks), the professor, Rabbi Wolli Kaelter, asked us to discuss “why we became rabbis.”  Each of us had fielded the question (or offered our reasons unsolicited) many times before, even as second year students, by family, friends, students, congregants, just about anyone with whom we had more than a passing acquaintance. As I recall the moment, we each gave our rather well rehearsed answers. He said something like, “Fine. That’s what you tell others. I hope you don’t believe that that is the whole answer.”

We became collectively nervous. I don’t think any of had ever been asked to articulate deeper, hidden motivations. His point ultimately was something like this:  no one wants the word “rabbi” in front of their name without knowing its power:  authority figure, expert, respected member of the community, and so forth. And even darker motivations: to be seen as holy and pure. To be unchallenged. Not to be seen as a regular person. I think we all collectively winced.
The professor said to us that we cannot go out there as clergy without having faced the inner, hidden motivations. He was not saying that our public reasons weren’t true – he was saying there is more truth to be found. He asked us all to search inside share with the class. What followed was the most intense personal experience I ever had in rabbinical school. We bared our souls to each other. Each of us had thought that we were only one with a hidden world and hidden wounds.  As we each opened up, we all recognized ourselves in each other. I think my teacher’s reason for our having this discussion was not only to have us face deeper motivations, but also not to feel alone with them.

Unless one faces and knows the inner motivations, they act as an inner Pharaoh. Unless one faces and knows those inner motivations, as unpleasant as that process may be, we cannot become people of truth. One cannot be a person of God, a person of truth, until one has come to God through knowing inner motivations – through Pharaoh. That moment not only helped me understand more deeply why other’s and I become clergy, it also gave me direction as a counselor.

I am asked this question often in formal and informal counseling situations:  why would someone do such a thing? Or, Why am I doing this?
One thing that I have learned since that day of opening up to my classmates is that we don’t know really know ultimately why we or anyone else does anything. I did years of intense spiritual work with a Hasidic teacher, and this was our main question:  motivations. As I considered different parts of my life, I realized that as time and more training went by, new chambers would open. My previous answers were proven to be a partial answer.

This is the first thing to do as you approach the divine to become a person of truth: you have to seek out your deeper motivations. The second thing you need to do is doubt that your answer is complete. Our conscious motivations, or ones of which we become conscious, are not necessarily false; they are simply partial.

This fundamental of Jewish spirituality became the corner stone of modern psychology: we are motivated powerfully by forces that we cannot see to achieve goals we did not know.

Why should we introspect so much? One simple answer is that once one understands deeper motivations, in other words, once one has faced the inner Pharaoh, we can often face down the action that follows. For example, oftentimes in when I counsel a family stuck in acrimony, when I really pursue motivations, what often arises in some people is the deep need to punish. This is an astoundingly tragic thing to know. People get hurt, disappointed, dismayed, and some hidden force within wants justice, usually in the form of petty vengeance. Most people have explanations for their behavior, and it takes awhile to admit that in addition to whatever else might be a sincere motivation, the desire to punish is there. The morally upright realize the corrosive power of vengeance, and learn to shape that urge into something more noble.

There is a famous little saying in the Talmud (Baba Batra 60b), “K’shote atzmecha techilah – achar kakh k’shot acherim.”  The Aramaic word “k’shote” has two meanings:  truth and beauty. One meaning of this aphorism might be, “Beautify yourself (do the right thing), before you demand that others be beautiful (do the right thing). Another meaning might be “Be truthful with yourself, and then you can be truthful with others” (anticipating Shakespeare’s Polonius by more than a millennium).

Both meanings are intertwined. I think that most of us want to do the right and beautiful thing, but we can’t until we honestly seek out what is going on inside of us. Perhaps we cannot act on the truth we find inside, but not lying to ourselves is good start.