- Rabbi Mordecai Finley Ph.D.
The Inner Pharaoh and Truth Within
Torah Portion Bo
The Jewish tradition loves serious play with words. This week’s Torah portion begins with God telling Moses, “Go to Pharaoh” to tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. The problem is, the Hebrew is actually “bo el Paro” which literally means “come to Pharaoh”, not “go to Pharaoh.” The biblical Hebrew word “bo”, can mean “come” as well as “go.”
The spiritual tradition focuses on meaning “come to Pharaoh.” If God says to Moses, “come to Pharaoh”, Moses 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 to 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 destructive tendencies, especially hidden motivations. The idea of facing the truth of inner motivations is a key element of Jewish spiritual psychology.
Probably the greatest censor of what is truly motivating us is our tendency to rationalize. To rationalize is just about the opposite of being rational. To rationalize means to give a reason for doing something when there is actually something else that is the motivation.
Unless one faces and knows one’s inner motivations, those hidden motivations act as an inner Pharaoh. Our reasoning mind is not telling us what to do – something hidden and often spiritually unsavory is going on. 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 – meaning, through Pharaoh.
“The inner Pharaoh” is usually the answer to questions such as, “Why would someone do such a thing?” Or, “Why am I doing this?” One thing that I have learned from my own inner work and working with many other people is that we don’t often 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 concern: hidden motivations. As time and more training went by, I considered different parts of my life and I saw new chambers of hidden motivations opening up. My previous answers as to why I did things were proven to be only partial answers.
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, hidden 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.
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 also 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”
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.