Because we usually sing it at the end of prayer services, we sing it hungry, and we sing it fast.
Rarely do we linger on the words.
What a loss! Adon Olam is a philosophical gem. It pushes the human mind to its edges. Stimulates questions, wonder, and reflection. And calls into question the entire prayer service.
The Artscroll edition prayer book offers a lovely translation:
Master of the Universe Who reigned
before any form was created
At the time when His will brought all into being —
then as “King” was his name proclaimed.
After all has ceased to be,
He, the Awesome One, will reign alone.
It is He Who was, He who is,
and He who shall remain, in splendor.
He is One — there is no second
to compare to Him, to declare as his equal.
Without beginning, without conclusion —
His is the power and dominion.
He is my God, my living Redeemer,
Rock of my pain in time of distress.
He is my banner, a refuge for me,
the portion in my cup on the day I shall call.
Into his hand I shall entrust my spirit
When I go to sleep – and I shall awaken!
With my spirit shall my body remain.
Hashem is with me, I shall not fear.
Just reading it sends my thoughts spinning, wondering what to make of this whole idea of God.
What is the “universe”? What existed before any form was created? What does it mean to say “God reigns”? How could God rule when there is nothing to rule? How did God’s “will” bring all into being? What would a non-human will be like? Why would God be called “King” only after all came into being – does God change? What does it even mean to talk about “after all has ceased to be”? In what sense is God “awesome”? How could I imagine God being “alone” – would that be an empty image? What does it mean to say that God “was, is, will be”? Could anyone be in those three times zones at the same time? In what sense is God “One”? What could be equal to God? What does it mean to say God has no “beginning”? No “conclusion”? Are these the same? What kind of “power” does God have? How could such a distant, different being also be a personal God?
No wonder tradition identifies the author as philosopher Solomon ibn Gabirol (Spain, 1020-1058).
Questions like these swirled in his mind, too. Though he soared in his thought, touching an immaterial God, his own life was embodied. How could his thoughts of an immaterial God help him understand the physical world around him? How could the physical world help him understand God?
God and the world are so different, he mused in his book The Font of Life. It’s as if they exist on different levels of reality. Physical reality changes all the time. Change is possible when time exists. God is outside time. How, then, could God have created a physical world? Obviously, the first thing to emanate out of God’s being would have had to be time.
But time is so alien to God’s being; how could time have emerged from God? Something more consistent with God’s nature would have to be an intermediary. Something like: eternity. Not time as material reality expresses it, but a potential out of which past, present and future could emerge.
Imagine along with Ibn Gabirol for a moment: We experience God in time — in times of distress, on the day we call, if we pray before sleeping and after waking, when we confront mortality — as Adon Olam says. But we think of God as bigger than time, existing before our world began, and enduring after our world ends — as Adon Olam also says. However: our thought, embedded in our material lives, is also time-bound. With the concept of eternity, we try to reach beyond time.
But the concept of eternity — time bound itself — is only an intermediary. Because, really, no concept is equal to God. No idea can compare with God. All names of God come into being only after creation, as creatures try to understand their world.
We sing Adon Olam at the end of the prayer service. After two hours of chanting poetry and scripture, we declare: everything we have said is not even an approximation of what we mean. We reject all concepts, yet still believe. Well, then, what do we believe?
Adon Olam invites us to wonder.