Parashat Vayechi: A fractal pattern

Some time ago, the Jewish mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot developed the theory of fractals.

ALBRECHT DÜRER’S engraving of Adam and Eve from 1504AN ELDERLY Isaac blesses Jacob with Rebekah in the background in this 1638 painting by Dutch artist Govert Flinck (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
ALBRECHT DÜRER’S engraving of Adam and Eve from 1504AN ELDERLY Isaac blesses Jacob with Rebekah in the background in this 1638 painting by Dutch artist Govert Flinck
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

When writing a Torah column, you naturally wonder how much you are repeating other columns, lectures and interpretations that have gone before. But I suspect that no commentator has started an explanation of Parashat Vayechi with a cauliflower. 

Perhaps a pomegranate, and apple is always a popular choice, but cauliflower may be unique. (Of course I’m prepared to be wrong.) 

Some time ago, the Jewish mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot developed the theory of fractals. Now I don’t claim to have mastered the math, so my seeking to explain it in numbers would be fruitless. But not vegetableless – for the cauliflower is a fractal pattern, that is, a whole all of whose parts look the same as the whole. If you break my watch, the pieces look like a broken watch. But if you pull off a piece of cauliflower, the piece looks like an entire cauliflower, only smaller. 

The idea that the small has the same shape as the larger is powerful in religious and mystical traditions. The sefirot, which are the entire mystical universe, are often portrayed as a human being, as though the macrocosm and the microcosm were the same. Hence the medieval statement that “man is the measure of all things.” 

Just as each character in the Torah is supposed to embody one of the sefirot, the sefirot as a whole look like a person. God contains all, the sefirot represent that, and our world is a fractal pattern of the greater reality. 

 cauliflower (illustrative) (credit: Wikimedia Commons) cauliflower (illustrative) (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Vayechi means “and he lived.” The Talmud tells us that “Jacob never dies.” The rabbis offer many explanations of this enigmatic statement. Jacob’s life is itself a spiritual fractal. What we see in him is what is true of the Jewish people; Jacob does not die because his life lives in us all. 

This is what our tradition means when it says that the doings of the ancestors are signs for the descendants. That which happened to them, happens to us on a smaller scale over and over – some of the events beautiful and some painful. 

THE TRADITION of exile and return is a spiritual fractal in Jewish history. It happened in the past; it is a part of the Jewish experience, and it happens again. The tradition of commentary grows and grows but keeps the same overall shape, which is why the generations of commentators are in dialogue with one another. When the rabbis tells us to turn the Torah over and over for everything is in it, then in a spiritual sense, the Torah is the shape of the world, it is a founding fractal.

Jacob is leaving his children to face the world that will change. So he must give them lessons that will not change. He must bless them enduringly, with patterns that they and their children and their grandchildren will be able to understand, and will recur in their lives. 

As we review Jacob’s life we recognize the patterns: young and ambitious and perhaps heedless of others; visionary and spiritually aspiring; eager and in love; a parent who made mistakes, suffered, lost people dear to him yet lived a full life. We see that those patterns indeed do not die, that we repeat them generation after generation as if, like Russian dolls, our lives are nested inside one another. 

The patterns are not perfect. The fractal is not so true to form as mathematical models, to be sure. The life of Abraham is not the same as that of Jacob, and so we cannot say they resemble the entirety of Jewish history in exactly the same ways. Nonetheless, each piece of Torah history can be seen as inhabiting the same shape as the whole. This is unsurprising even in our own lives: the older one gets, the more one sees that the patterns, even those we sought to escape, almost inevitably recur.

The book of Ecclesiastes embodies this lesson, that everything which happens repeats what has gone before. There is something beautiful and sustaining in knowing that, even as we live our own lives, our ancestors’ live through us, and the deep messages of Torah are found even in a cauliflower. 

The writer is Max Webb senior rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author of David: The Divided Heart. On Twitter @rabbiwolpe.