Off the Pulpit

Spiritual Fractals

The cauliflower explains a lot about the Jewish tradition.

A fractal is a self-similar pattern, whose scale or size differs. Things in nature display different degrees of such self-similarity — break a cauliflower apart and a piece will look like a whole. Much of the modern interest in fractals is due to the work of Benoit Mandelbrot, a Jewish mathematician born in Warsaw who left before the war and went on to have a very distinguished career.

Our sages teach that the deeds of the ancestors are signs for the children. In other words, Jewish history repeats itself, and if you study the past you will discern many of the shapes of the present. This is Judaism’s way of presenting history as a spiritual fractal. Look at the life of Jacob – the exile, the struggle, the dreams, the passing on of Judaism to future generations – and you will see the spiritual fractal of Israel.

Nothing in history is exactly the same of course. But there are recurrent patterns in the experience of the Jewish people that validate the rabbinic insight. Jews are often called the people of the book, but we can also learn a lot from the cauliflower.