In this week's parsha God commands the Kohanim (priests) to remove the ashes every morning from the Temple. At first glance, that doesn't sound like the kind of task one would give to such a holy and important person. Why was this done?
Let me give some background to answer this important question.
Back in 1985, when I was a young apprentice in Aish Hatorah Los Angeles, one of my jobs was to post flyers advertising a massive event we were hosting for Elie Wiesel on the Holocaust. It was a big job and I had no idea how I was going to post so many posters over such a big city. Someone advised me to hire day laborers and have teams stapling the signs on telephone poles. There was a particular spot where people would wait on the side of the road and anyone who needed a job for the day would come by. Being from London I had never seen anything like it. The first day I showed up with a station wagon (remember them?). Someone poked his head through the window and asked in broken English, "How many?"
I don't quite remember the number I told him but all of a sudden men were literally diving into the car, some through the windows!
As we drove to the designated spots someone who spoke a little English (since I don't speak Spanish) asked me how much I was paying and what was the job.
I told them the price and then said I would be giving them a pile of posters and staple guns and they would go down the street advertising the big day. Now I am pretty sure they were not anti-Semitic, nor Holocaust deniers, but it was at this point that at least half of the car emptied out. This happened on more than one occasion, even while I was still driving!
One of them explained to me, it wasn't "manly" enough.
To me, this was astounding. They would rather do a job hauling cement, or worse, or even not earn a penny that day, than do something they felt was beneath them.
Rav Yaacov Weinberg zt"l tells of a social science experiment in which minimum wage workers were hired to stand next to a conveyor belt and simply screw nuts onto bolts. After a while however, the conveyor belt was turned backwards and these same workers had to take these same nuts off those same bolts.
They found that no matter what they were paid, people wouldn't do it.
We all need a sense that what we are doing makes a real difference. In other words, it's not the money. We need to feel we are doing something meaningful. Double or triple your salary, and nevertheless if all you did was move papers from one side of your desk to the other, you would soon quit.
This we can all understand. But what I would like us to ponder, does the bus driver for those nuts and bolts workers feel the same despair? Is his job any better? What about their doctor? Are those jobs any more fulfilling?
Let us take this a step further. Suppose the workers on the conveyor belt were divided into two groups. In one factory, one group puts the nuts on the bolts. When they are finished the nuts and bolts are shipped to a second factory where they are taken apart and returned.
Is that any better? Obviously not really. The only difference is, neither knows what is really going on and neither knows that their jobs are absolutely meaningless.
Or do they?
Even though neither group is aware of what happens to the boxes of nuts and bolts, their lack of any awareness that anything they are doing makes any difference in the world will give them a sneaking and growing suspicion that it's all a waste of time. In other words, if what we are doing is meaningful, then we would know about it. And if what we are doing is not meaningful, then we will never hear otherwise.
I have been told that the time of greatest recorded productivity in America was World War Two. Anyone who was putting a nut on a bolt or sweeping a factory floor, or driving a bus felt they were making a difference by bringing peace to the world.
The real problem is that people have a very hard time choosing careers where meaning is the determining factor.
You hear it a lot these days, "You have to find a job that you are passionate about." I personally think there is no such thing, you just can't be passionate about putting nuts on bolts and taking them off again. And not only can't you be passionate about such a job, you can't be passionate being the bus driver for these workers, nor their lawyer nor even their doctor.
"But Rabbi, I do love my job." I hear you protesting, or at least some of you who have, what we might call, interesting jobs.
Let me tell you what you would be like if you really had passion. Imagine you come home from work one day to see six fire trucks surrounding your burning house (God forbid 10 million times). The fire chief runs up to you and tells you there is nothing more we can do. "No one can go in."
"But my baby is in her crib upstairs," You protest.
He looks at you and says, "I'm sorry, it's impossible, no one can go in."
You push him aside and start running to the house. He tackles you to the ground and tells you to wait outside as he rushes in. A long 15 minutes later, somehow he comes out with your baby.
There are very few jobs you can do that will give you as much drive and passion as saving a baby from a burning home. That's real passion.
Is that what you feel when you turn on your computer in the morning?
That's what the fireman feels.
However, take the baby out of the story, and jumping through a fire is not much fun, not that interesting and not at all meaningful. It's not the job, it's the purpose for the job.
So back to this week's parsha in which God commands the Kohanim to remove the ashes. This was quite simply, taking out God's garbage. God could have had anyone do it. But this job has ultimate value in the total running of the Temple, and therefore it was given to those who are most dedicated to God's service. In fact, the Talmud reports that the Kohanim were so anxious to take out the ashes, that they instituted a lottery system to stop them arguing about who would get the job!
Passion comes from the value of the goal in the job. However, few people can earn a living in the thing that gives real passion. However, just because you have a day job doesn't mean you can't engage in your passion after hours.
It's impossible to really live unless you have passion in your life. When you have experienced those moments of intensity, everything comes alive. However, it's relatively easy to have that experience constantly, as long as you are willing to drive the bus or take out the garbage for those things that are ultimately meaningful.
Focus on the true purpose of existence and be willing to do whatever needs to be done and whatever you can. If you do this, instead of focusing on what job title you have, your life will be filled with true passion.
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BRAINSTORMING QUESTIONS TO PONDER
Question 1: Think of a time when you were so focused on a goal that eating and maybe even sleeping had no place in your mind. The goal was so important that no task was too menial for you. What was that goal and how did you feel about completing it?
Question 2: What are the top three most important goals that a human being can have?
Question 3: What can you do every day to help achieve those goals?