Q. Why do we sing, “Bring us back to You, O Lord, and we shall return: renew our days as of old”, when we return the Torah to the ark in the synagogue?
A. This verse from the end of Megillat Echah (Lamentations) is a prayer to God to restore us to independence and peace in the Holy Land. When the Ark is opened we say, Vay’hi bin’so’a ha’aron, “When (in the wilderness) the Ark moved forward, Moses said…” and when the Ark is closed we say, Uv’nucho yomar, “And when the Ark came to rest, Moses said…” (Num. 10:35).
Like the Ark in the wilderness, Jews have been constantly on the move, settling down for long periods in some places and shorter periods in others. The Torah has been with us, but the constant moving and migrating has been hard. Hence our prayer that the wanderings may end, enabling us to enjoy lasting peace in the land of Israel, chadesh yamenu k’kedem….
The verse in Echah also implies that we used to be close to God. At the time of Creation that was certainly the case, but then we often drifted away and needed to be brought back onto the right path. The whole of history is thus an oscillating movement away and back.
Does this include the atheist? Rav Kook used to say that there was no such thing as a complete atheist, and the person who said, “I don’t believe in God” really yearned to believe but had not yet found the path. In a sense such a person showed amazing intellectual honesty by refusing to be convinced by the ideas and options which other people advanced.
But what often happens is that the mental effort to find persuasive arguments for God is less effective than the sudden encounter with Him or the gradual dawning on one’s heart and mind that the world is full of evidence that He is there around us if we only use our eyes and ears.