Here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week's portion back in 2006, originally published at the now-defunct Radical Torah.
Where is this thing called Teshuvah located? the Torah asks. Well, it isn't in heaven, so please don't say, I can't do this thing because I don't know how to get to heaven. And it isn't across the sea, so please don't say, I can't do this thing because I don't have a steamship ticket. "Rather it is exceedingly near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, so you can do it." Don't look off in the distance, and don't look outside yourself either, the Torah is telling us, look at your own heart. Don't look out the window; look at the window itself.
So writes Rabbi Alan Lew in This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared. The Torah verses he's citing fall in this week's Torah portion, Nitzavim-vayeilech, right after an exhortation to return to God with all one's heart and soul.
Who among us wouldn't return to God, given the chance? Even if we're not sure what "God" means, or what "return" would look like. Maybe the urging to return to God speaks to us of relationship with the Source of all that is; maybe we imagine a kind of whole-hearted homecoming, an entry or re-entry into the presence of the Most High. Maybe it makes us think of returning to our truest selves. One way or another, it sounds grand, doesn't it?
But more often than not, we get in our own way. The return isn't consummated, doesn't become real, because we imagine distance that doesn't need to be there. The Slonimer rebbe teaches that we are all always already in a state of devekut, cleaving-to or oneness-with God, if only we would open our eyes and realize it -- but too often, we don't. We get hung-up on all the ways we know ourselves to be distant from God, instead.
And we forget these beautiful lines from parashat Netzavim. The Torah anticipates our lame and shamefaced protestations -- our screwed-up certainty that making teshuvah is difficult, that God probably doesn't want nebbishes like us anyway, that teshuvah requires something we can't access or don't know. Teshuvah isn't baffling or out-of-reach; it isn't in the heavens, and it isn't across the sea. Teshuvah can be found in the words we speak, and in the innermost chambers of our hearts.
It's easy to imagine that the journey toward God is arduous, requiring tools and training and specialized equipment. But in truth, God is as near to us as we can possibly imagine. God's radiant compassion is streaming down at this very moment, whether we think we deserve it or not. During these days of Elul, it's our job to clean the windowpanes of the soul so that we can be aware of that radiance once again.
No matter what patterns are dogging us, what frustrations clench our teeth. No matter whether we're racked with weeping, or unable to remember what it feels like to cry. No matter how many misdeeds we've committed, or mitzvot we've failed to live up to. Whether we've been focused on our spiritual and emotional lives since the nadir of Tisha b'Av, or whether we're only now waking up to the realization that the holidays are next week and we have menus to plan! No matter who we are or where we're at, teshuvah is possible, and it's as simple as taking a deep breath and opening our hearts.
So like Rabbi Lew says, don't look out the window -- look at the window itself. Give the soul a good once-over with a soft rag and some Windex. Be gentle, especially in places where the glass seems fragile or liable to crack, but be persistent. There's so much beauty waiting to shine through, and it's always already right here.