My name is Cody, and I’m a third-year Ph.D. student at MIT in astronautical engineering. Engineering, whether it’s in industry or at graduate school, is all about collaboration and teamwork. For the most part I love it; two heads are better than one! But there are times when working with others can be really challenging. Trying to navigate a team project when ideas clash, passions flare and the odd member with apathy decides to show up can be so frustrating. This week, the MIT Hillel Jewish Learning Fellowship that I am part of discussed collaboration in a couple of wildly different contexts, and it helped me to see teamwork in a whole new light. 

We looked at collaboration first in the context of artistic collaboration between Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Oddly, the art that came out of this was almost unanimously negatively received. But the way the two worked together was a work of art on its own. They appreciated each other’s talents but pushed each other to do more. They disagreed and had wildly different styles, but the relationship they had was symbiotic. Both felt they needed the other and this was the key. 

The second collaboration was the story of Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish from the Talmud (Bavli Bava Metzia 84a). Here we come upon two mismatched friends who both help each other in their own ways but let ego get the better of them when that help is recognized. Their friendship falls apart and they both end up losing their lives. This was a particularly interesting view of collaboration. It’s not just about work, research or a job, it’s about how you treat your everyday relationships too. I would never have thought to look to the Talmud for advice on this, but seeing it in this light changed my perspective on how to treat any collaboration.

I wasn’t raised in the Jewish faith. My dad is a secular Jew who doesn’t really practice. My mom isn’t Jewish at all. Any Jewish culture I did have was food-based and family-oriented. We had family dinners Friday nights and were no strangers to latkes and matzoh ball soup, but I didn’t go to synagogue and I had never read the Talmud. After my Bubbi passed away a few years ago, my sisters and I wanted to reconnect with our Jewish heritage. This is how eventually I would become involved with JLF. 

Learning about Judaism and how it fits into my life has given me a whole new way to explore my life and the world. The story of Rabbi Yochanan is a perfect example of this. A story that I never would have read has shown me that ego is the enemy of the student. And that we should always strive to be students in life, whether it’s in a group project or a friendship, everyone can be a teacher; everyone has something to offer you.

Looking at collaboration from a Jewish perspective opened the definition of the word for me to something bigger than the concept of what the Warhol and Basquiat example could provide. Theirs was, yes, a friendship, and one that demanded understanding and respect of the other, but it was still framed in the eyes of a successful business partnership. Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish were friends; the idea of collaboration as its own reward was different. Ego and personal insecurities can break any relationship, be it personal or professional. Recognizing this and being reminded of everyone’s humanity will help me to see from someone else’s view in all of my interactions. And this will make me a better student, a better teammate and a better person. And in the end, isn’t that what we all are striving for?

Thank you to MIT Hillel, CJP and all those who provided this opportunity to enrich my graduate-school experience and to help me to connect with Jewish roots.

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