One Minute Torah – Matot Masei 5779

This week’s One Minute Torah is from the archives. I did my PhD in the Biology Department of MIT. It was an intense place, with […]

This week’s One Minute Torah is from the archives.

I did my PhD in the Biology Department of MIT. It was an intense place, with a Nobel Prize studded faculty and students contending to be the next of their generation, each absorbed in their own piece of the scientific endeavor. Some labs stood out as extreme pressure-cookers. One professor was notorious for assigning multiple students to the same project, and having them compete against each other. But a few labs stood out for their camaraderie. They managed to build a sense of loyalty and friendship, despite the systemic challenges of doing so.

Academic departments, companies, medical practices, non-profits, synagogues: any brew of people coming together can easily foment a competitive feeling. Many have a cut-throat culture, and many are made of people who value and support each other. School teachers have the extraordinary opportunity to watch miniature communities from the outside. Sometimes a class will develop an unspoken leader, and that student will often poison the atmosphere of the class. On rarer occasions, I’ve seen one student’s openness and warmth spread through an entire class. In either case, I’m always amazed by the power of one personality to shape the interactions of a group.

This week’s parshah, Matot-Masei, provides a model or language for thinking about communities and the cultures they develop. “Do not pollute the land in which you live, for I (God) shochen (dwell) in the land; I am Adonai, shochen (the One who dwells) within the Israelite people” (Numbers 35:34). A harsh criticism, a selfish grab for credit or territory, words and actions that push others down to pull yourself up – these chase the Shechinah (the divine presence that dwells in this world) out of a community. When the Shechinah is gone, the emptiness is felt by everyone, and the worst parts of ourselves claw out of the darkness into the void. When a community is blessed with Shechinah, Her presence is felt in encouraging smiles, words of meaningful praise, offers to work together, a sense that we are all part of a shared endeavor.