In our last post, we broke down the middah of ‘ambition’ into its most basic components: a desire to expand ones boundaries, by reaching for that which is outside oneself. This, we said, was in many ways akin to ‘taking’, and so rather distant from ‘giving’. (Giving is defined by Rav Dessler [1] as ‘exploding’ oneself outwards towards others, i.e. reaching outwards to connect with them).

Just to take this idea a little further, Rav Dessler drives home how circular ‘ambition’ can become: if we are always seeking that which outside ourselves, and we only do so due to the fact that it is external (and therefore perhaps exciting, interesting or foreign), then the moment something becomes internal (i.e. we buy it, achieve it, own it), we are no longer interested. There is no clear end to a cycle of seeking physical pleasures in this way. Logic dictates that, if you are always seeking something external, then you will never be satisfied.

Yet ambition, like all middos, does have its place. Where would this be?

Now, if you are like me, you may be thinking: well, of course ambition will be beneficial in the context of striving for spiritual pursuits, such as attainment of Torah, achievement of mitzvos, and performance of good deeds. This is certainly the case. But to stop there is to limit ourselves to solely ‘spiritual’ endeavours, and thereby ignore our duty as Jews to engage with and elevate the physical world.

So, when can we justify, and indeed encourage, ambition in relation to physical objects?

Rav Dessler provides an answer: where ambition originates from, and is strongly rooted in, a desire to give, rather than take. Rather than ambition driving you forward for your own end – because that job promotion comes with a nice pay cheque, or because that new phone as a new app which makes it easier to order pizza – it can, if carefully directed, help us to give to others. That way, ambition becomes a means of giving. Some examples will help to illustrate the point:

1. You support a particular tzedakah fund or charitable cause, and see that they need extra funds. Your ambition to work hard, and earn money, so that you can give more to tzedakah, is certainly a good thing.

I recently heard the following idea, based on the teachings of the Rambam [2]. Where you invest in a business deal which you hope will yield a certain amount, it is a good idea to quantify in advance, bli neder, the amount that you will give to tzedakah upon the deal’s successful conclusion. For example, you hope the deal will earn you £10,000, so you plan in your head to give at least £1,000 (10%) to charity. This way, the whole business venture becomes intertwined with the act of giving tzedakah, and therefore elevated. By creating a target for the amount of tzedakah you wish to give, you demonstrate that one of the key purposes behind this deal is to help others, as well as yourself.

It seems legitimate to extend this principle all types of pay structures. Even where your monthly pay is fixed, you might have a discretionary bonus element that you could calculate the tzedakah on advance. And even if your entire salary is fixed, you might plan on a higher amount of tzedakah if you get a certain promotion. This is an admirable, if lofty, way to conduct business.

2. You would like to volunteer as a driver to deliver food to needy people. Your ambition to get a car to use for this purpose may be very helpful in spurring you on.

3. You see friends and family succeeding in their learning, and this spurs you on to learn for an extra ten minutes each day. Again, your ambition is creating positive results.

In the workplace, where ambition is sometimes expected in order to advance, the above may serve as a basis for thinking differently. By realigning our priorities, we can bring together our obligations as an employee and those as a Jew.

May we all strive for real, lasting success.




The WorkingJew


[1] Rav Dessler, Michtav M’Eliyahu, Chelek Aleph – as interpreted by Rabbi Avrohom Zeidman.

[2] As interpreted by Rabbi Yosef Viener, in his shiur on Hilchos Tzedakah (Part 3).