(Sorry that this offering comes slightly out of order. It should have preceded last week's.)
The beginning of the phrase "et ha'avodah" is familiar to us already. "Et" is the untranslatable direct-object marker, and the prefix "ha" is the definite article, that is, it means "the."
So the word in question "avodah," and in its modern Hebrew context it is very familiar. Avodah means "work," in the sense of "labor." In fact, the Labor Union Movement utilizes this word in its name and literature. The meaning draws from another familiar form of the word that describes our status before the exodus, and identifies a class of workers in the Torah. "Eved" (plural, "avadim") means slave or indentured servant. At its root, the word seems to imply someone who serves a master.
So it seems a little peculiar to those of us who live in a world in which slavery is anathema and compensated work has dignity to learn that the act of worshipping God is known by the name "avodah." However, the word we choose in English to identify the original avodah and its modern expression is "service." When we approached God to perform the ancient sacrifices, we served God's will as expressed in the Torah. When we gather to pray – or even offer our individual devotions – we participate in services.
Ancient or modern, avodah is effort we put forth that benefits someone or something else. Though we may be compensated, even if we work "for ourselves" our labor is a sacrifice of time and expertise we make to serve a boss, manager, company or cause. Though we may be spiritually uplifted and inspired, the ritual and liturgy we perform are a sacrifice of personal initiative and discretionary time that we dedicate to God. Though we gained the benefit of blessing or food, the offerings and sacrifices we brought to the Temple were a plain acknowledgment that God had claim to our time and harvest.
Avodah, if compelled and involuntary, is slavery – a diminution of freedom – because it confiscates time. Avodah, if offered lovingly and willingly, is sanctifying because it adds meaning to time. That it especially true of the nature of the avodah makes the world a better place by highlighting God's pervasiveness or improving the lives of other human beings.
When we ask God to return avodah, we ask to be given more opportunities to imbue our world with meaning.