In his book, The Master and his Emissary, Iain McGilchrist analyses competing tendencies within each of us, and thus humanity as a whole, from the perspective of left and right hemisphere brain differences. For example, “the left hemisphere disposition toward the world is that of use; the disposition of the right hemisphere is one of care, rather than control. Its will relates to a desire or longing towards something, something that lies beyond itself, towards the Other.” In other words, each of us, and our society as well, has tendencies toward utilitarianism and toward altruism. This month of Elul, preparing us for the Yamim Noraim and the time of balance, is when we begin making personal adjustments. McGilchrist’s thesis is that we live in a world of left brain domination, undermining right brain holistic connectivity. Each of us and our society tends to be more utilitarian than caring. We can help begin this process of rebalancing as we shift our attention to the Other – human, animal, environmental and essential. One way of shifting attention is to seek within for our deepest longings.
Often we think of longing only in terms of nostalgia, a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past. Part of the Yamim Noraim is reflecting on the past, including that which we have lost or and those we have wronged. But longing can also be understood as future-oriented, being towards something beyond one self, towards something better – towards reconciliation, healing and connection. Indeed, the Yamim Noraim call us to remember the past in order to improve the future.
Let us use this time to imagine the self, the relationships, the society for which we long. We can use the metaphor of God, the one who is within all and connects all, as that for which we long most deeply. The concept of longing for God, the ultimate Other that lies just beyond ourselves, is found deep in the Jewish tradition, especially in the Book of Psalms. Psalm 42:2-3, recited in some traditions as part of the Selichot, or forgiveness prayers said in Elul, expresses this kind of longing poetically: “Like a hind crying for water, my soul cries for You, O God; my soul thirst for God, the living God, when will I come before God!” These days of Elul invite us to examine our longings, drawing our attention not just to that which we have done , but also to the deep desire, the longing, to heal, to reconnect and to reunite.
-- Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins, Emanuel Synagogue Woollahra