All three Semitic faiths share the account of the Israelite exodus from Egypt under the leadership of Moses. This account speaks to the heart of the dilemma of being human in a complex society. Within us there is a conflict between two beings: one compliant and risk averse, the other somewhat wilder and thirsting for authenticity. It is the discourse that happens between the soldier and the warrior. The account of the exodus gives us very useful material to examine this conflict.
In Semitic mythology this distinction is explored in the account of Moses and Pharaoh. The Pharonic model subjugates the people to the work of the social project. This project amounts to the construction of the pyramidic mausoleum of the leader. The aim of this mausoleum is to ensure the immortality and eternal aggrandizement of the leader. The people are enslaved to this project principally because of their own need for the security of life in Egypt. In the Mosaic model the social project is fundamentally bizarre. It amounts to an aimless wandering through the desert for forty years. However, this wandering is about enabling a generation of free people. The social project is therefore the means to the end of enabling the people, not the other way round. Moses, the leader, never gets to the Promised Land. He is expended in the process of freeing the people from slavery.
Our current take on leadership is informed by our understanding of the purpose of work. Work, from our current point of view, is to do useful things. Those in charge of the society are the ones who designate what work is useful, and the most useful work is concerned with building things that are impressive – edifices.
In our current age, as in ancient Egypt, the pyramid is the aim of all work. If this is not so in terms of constructing buildings then it is at least so metaphorically: We have made pyramidal structure the metaphorical framework for organisational life. When we speak about the structure of an organisation, an image that springs to mind is a pyramid.
A pyramid has a person at the apex and that person is the hero who is orchestrating all this work and everybody else is subordinate to the purpose of the work. So if we then look at what happened to the people in Egypt, almost the entire society is enslaved to build this pyramidal structure that was designated as useful by the pharaoh.
The usefulness of the pyramid was very specific: It was a mausoleum of epic proportions wherein the pharaoh would live forever. This suggests that in a pyramidal society all work that is designated as useful is actually about the eternal aggrandizement of the one in charge, the leader. When work is being designated as principally being about knuckling down and being useful we have to ask the question ‘useful to whom?’
To knuckle down and become useful is to become the foot soldier for the social project, which is really concerned with furthering the interests of these iconic figures that have been put in charge; the ones who are on top of the pile. This is the wrong way around. The leader should be there for the people. The people aren’t there for the leader.
The leadership of Moses represents something quite different. First of all the task is quite bizarre and in a sense perfectly useless and futile. It is about wandering around the desert for forty years. The purpose of this wandering was not to produce anything concrete, like a pyramid. The purpose was to enable a generation of free people. People who were not slaves. The aim of the work, the wandering, was to transform the worker, the wanderer.
This means that the people weren’t there for the work. The work (the wandering) was there to enable free people. The object of the work, the object of the struggle was not to achieve this utopian order. The object of the struggle was to achieve a free individual. The incidental purpose of work is to do useful things. The essential purpose of work is the transformation of the worker.
In fact it doesn’t matter what the work is. All you know is that you have to work, you have to struggle. The struggle could be completely bizarre, like wandering around the desert for forty years. One could imagine the conversations:
“So, where are we going to go now?”
“I have no idea. …. Follow the cloud!”
Absolutely ridiculous work. Why? – Because the purpose of the work is not to achieve anything. The purpose of the work is to transform the self. That is why we work. In the process of doing this, the leader Moses does not attain the Promised Land, he gets expended. Far from using people to achieve the leader’s end, the leader is used up or expended in the process of enabling their freedom.
So we are currently looking at things upside down. We are not here for society. Although we say serve, serve, serve the other – understand that the purpose of serving the other is not to fix the other because the other is made to be fundamentally broken. It’s not going to be fixed. The aim is to serve so that you serve yourself empty. Once you have served yourself empty, you have drained it all; you then occupy a place which is preparedness for death. You can describe the preparedness for death as the high point, the most sublime, the most singular achievement of a human life.
The utopianism of the modern age does violence to the profundity that the Semitic faiths have brought us. If one examined the Islamic heritage, for example, then the real contribution made by the followers of the Prophet was not the buildings, not the books, not the institutions and universities. The real heritage was extraordinary people who could make a madrasa under a tree. A madrasa is a place where learning takes place. It is not a building.
The aim of good work is to enable individuals. It is not to build structures. It is not to build edifices. It is not aggrandizement. Making the project the enablement of people rather than aggrandizement certainly feels closer to the self effacing frugality of the endeavour of the Prophet and his early companions.