“Shemayah said: Love work; scorn public office [positions of prominence] and seek not undue intimacy with the authorities” (Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers 1:10).

When conjuring up images of the great rabbis listed in the Talmud, one might picture aged men who spent their entire lives in a study hall. In truth, however, many of the sages quoted in the Talmud had other occupations as well: Abba Shaul was a gravedigger, Rabbi Shimon P’kuli was a cotton dealer, Rabbi Yochanan HaSandlar was a shoemaker, Rabbi Abba ben Zavina was a tailor, Shmuel was a physician, etc.

Since work is a necessary part of life, Shemayah advised that one should “love work.” Ever since God cursed Adam that “By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread, until you return to the ground…” (Genesis 3:19), humankind has had to labor and work. Loving work, however, not only makes one better at his or her job, but it makes one happier in life in general.

This seems like simple advice, hardly worthy of being recorded in the Mishnah, until one reads the admonishments that Shemayah includes in his statement: “scorn public office” [a position of prominence] “and seek not undue intimacy with the authorities.”  As much as one loves one’s work, people should not let themselves be driven by their unrestrained ambitions. In striving to achieve a prominent position, a person can easily rationalize acts that are ethically questionable (for instance, taking credit for someone else’s work, spreading hurtful rumors about those who stand in one’s way, etc.). That is not to say that if one achieves a position of prominence, one should forego it, but rather that such an achievement should not be one’s goal. After all, this advice came from a man who himself became the president of the Sanhedrin.

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