Our Gemara on Amud Aleph tells us that originally they had a race up the ramp of the mizbeach to determine which Cohen got to do the Terumas HaDeshen (removal of the ashes). Since the competition led to falling and injury, the rabbis held a lottery instead. After the rabbis instituted the lottery, the Gemara reported that there was a drop in interest (it was an early morning non-glamorous service), and so they had to add more services to the “winner’s package”. Now the winner would also merit to set up the fire and logs on the altar.

Why the drop in interest between the race and the lottery? Rashi says, no one wanted to bother with the lottery, as they did not have much hope to win. This begs the obvious question: The original contest of racing up the ramp also was not a sure win, so how come the cohanim were still interested in waking up early for a chance to win that competition?

Apparently, we must say the sense of control made all the difference. Even though regardless of the contest being a lottery or a race, there can only be one winner. However, since the race was skill-based, each Cohen could tell himself, “I’m going to win.” But the lottery was pure chance, and so was less interesting.

This has implications for education and discipline. The more control you give a person in his or her fate, the more cause for motivation even if the actual odds of succeeding remain the same. For example, consider the effect of a poorly designed test which does not comprehensively measure knowledge of subject matter, but instead uses random spot check questions. The child feels he could be lucky or unlucky based on what questions are asked. My father Z”L, a renowned educator of more than 60 years, considered most tests a sham.  Presumably, a 90 means the child knows 90% of the material.  If the test does not accurately measure that, the score is a lie. On the other hand, a comprehensively designed test, or better yet, a more reasonable demonstration of knowledge attained such as a thoughtful portfolio of projects, is more likely to motivate. Similarly, an employee that works in an environment where the performance standards seem random or arbitrary, either in how they are presented or in how they are measured in practice, is less likely to be motivated. 

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Translations Courtesy of Sefaria