We are familiar with the words from the reading for this Shabbat, Shuvah HaShem riv’vot alfei yisra’el – “Return, O Lord, to the ten thousands of the families of Israel” (Num. 10:36). These words are sung as the Torah is brought back to the Ark, and many synagogal composers have created moving musical renditions of them.
The question is, however, why we say to God, “Return”. Where has He been? What sort of returning do we expect from Him?
Rashi and Ibn Ezra believe the word shuvah is to be understood as “bestow peace and tranquillity”. Sforno prefers, “May Your Divine Presence rest”. Chizkuni thinks the word implies, “Restore the ten thousands of Israel to their place”.
All these views clearly agree on one thing – that the people of Israel have no future or destiny without God.
Isidore Epstein, my teacher, used to compare people who think they can manage without God to a steam train when the steam is turned off. For a while the momentum will continue, but eventually the train will slow down and stall, and the same thing applies if a generation or individual think they can still get somewhere without the Almighty.
For a while things will keep going, but eventually the spiritual and moral energy will no longer be there and their path will peter out.