You can think of the inner Pharaoh as a part of yourself that leads you to try to dominate others, to see yourself as master of the universe. As Mary Boys suggests, the heart of the struggle to overcome this all-too-human proclivity lies in recognizing that God is God and you’re not. Prayer and participation in a Jewish community go a long way to keep that essential truth in focus.
In the story of the Exodus, Pharaoh’s arrogance and ruthlessness lie in his failure to acknowledge God. When Moses confronts him with God’s order to let the Israelites go, “. . . Pharaoh said, ‘Who is the Lord that I should heed Him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord nor will I let Israel go’” (Exodus 5:2). Centuries later the prophet Ezekiel delivers God’s condemnation of a later Egyptian king whose grandiosity matched that of his predecessor: “I [God] am going to deal with you, O Pharaoh king of Egypt, mighty monster, sprawling in your channels, who said, ‘My Nile is my own; I made it for myself’” (Ezekiel 29:3). Stories such as these warn of the fall that inevitably awaits those grandiose souls who dominate others and see themselves as masters of the universe.
Many Jewish rituals serve to undermine our tendencies toward grandiosity. Matzah, the unleavened bread we eat at the Passover Seder, has often been said to symbolize simplicity and modesty. It is not puffed up. As one Hassidic master taught, matzah represents a point of purity to which we annually return to cleanse ourselves of the haughtiness that rises within us over the course of the year. On the Day of Atonement, observant Jews fast, refrain from bathing and wear a white robe that evokes a burial shroud. The day simulates death and sharpens the will to make amends. The liturgy includes repeated confessionals of the sins we have committed against others. Five days later, Jews celebrate the festival of Sukkot, Tabernacles, and build a flimsy structure called a sukkah. Observant Jews will eat as many meals as possible in their sukkah and, weather permitting, will sleep in it, as well. The sukkah’s frailty reminds us of that everything we build is ultimately temporary, as is life itself.
Religion is not for the faint-hearted. It calls for honesty before God and acknowledgment for ways in which we ignore, rationalize and deny our call to flourish and contribute to the flourishing of all creation. Fortunately, religions offer abundant resources for struggling against our inner Pharaohs; personal and communal prayer and fasting are common ways in which adherents are invited to live more profoundly.
Worship of God lies at the heart of confronting our inner Pharaoh because in worshiping we acknowledge we are not God. Worship in Christianity includes confession of sin; we might think of sin as the “choice to remain in a wrecked relationship with God and with other human beings.”* But worship has myriad expressions: celebrations of Eucharist or Communion Services, recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours (e.g., via the Book of Common Prayer, the Breviary, or other modes of recitation of Psalms, readings and prayers), various meditation practices (e.g., Centering Prayer *), Lectio Divina (“sustained immersion into a revelatory text”*) and devotions (e.g., Bible study; shared prayer; the Rosary, a Catholic practice using prayer beads that bears similarity to Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu practices). Over the centuries one of the most significant Christian practices for confronting our inner Pharaoh has been the pilgrimage, particularly to the Way of St. James (El Camino de Santiago) in Compostela, Spain. This pilgrimage was the subject of the 2011 film, “The Way,” starring Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez. Increasingly, the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius that originated with the 16th century founder of the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits, have become more widely practiced within the spectrum of Christian traditions.*
Our biggest inner Pharaohs in Islam are our arrogance and egoism. God asked Moses to go to Pharaoh: “. . . for, verily, he has transgressed all bounds of equity (20:24). Condemning Pharaoh’s and his chieftains’ arrogance, the Qur’an says: “Unto Pharaoh and his great ones; but these behaved with arrogance, for they were people wont to glorify [only] themselves” (23:46). In another verse the Qur’an says: “Behold, Pharaoh exalted himself in the land and divided its people into castes. One group of them he deemed utterly low; he would slaughter their sons and spare [only] their women: for, behold, he was one of those who spread corruption [on earth]”(28:4).
The Qur’an calls for humility and asks people to reject arrogance in its all shapes: “And turn not thy cheek away from people in [false] pride, and walk not haughtily on earth: for, behold, God does not love anyone who, out of self-conceit, acts in a boastful manner” (31:18). The Qur’an asks its followers to worship God and fulfill their obligations to people humbly: “WORSHIP God [alone], and do not ascribe divinity, in any way, to aught beside Him. And do good unto your parents, and near of kin, and unto orphans, and the needy, and the neighbor from among your own people, and the neighbor who is a stranger, and the friend by your side, and the wayfarer, and those whom you rightfully possess. Verily, God does not love any of those who, full of self-conceit, act in a boastful manner” (4:36). Praising those who are humble, the Qur’an says: “For, [true] servants of the Most Gracious are [only] they who walk gently on earth, and who, whenever the foolish address them, reply with [words of] peace” (25:63).
Worship, fasting and remembering God are the best methods of staying humble. When Muslims put their forehead on earth in prostration, they commit themselves to humbleness and to staying away from arrogance. Prostration reminds the believers that we come from earth and very soon will return to the earth and will be accountable to all for our actions before God.