Adon Olam is a popular synagogue song, typically sung at the conclusion of Shabbat and holiday morning services. It’s traditionally ascribed to the great medieval poet Shlomo ibn Gabirol (Spain; 11th c.), although this hasn’t been decisively determined.
Its metrical pattern allows for countless musical settings. Rarely, though, is close attention given to the words themselves. Over time, I came to realize that in its words, the poet — whoever he or she was — had perfectly outlined the process of contemplative prayer, as my experience of it has been.
The first verses declare abstract truths of G-d: Eternity; Unity; etc. This is how contemplative prayer begins — not with consideration of our own needs, or even with love for G-d. Rather, it begins with our profound acknowledgement of realities about G-d that are unchanging and utterly beyond ourselves. Im-mersing our attention in this brings us to profound quiet. This is our awe at the grandness of G-d.
Jewish tradition offers other texts that can serve this purpose, too. But Adon Olam captures major themes in the tersest possible language.
The next verses affirm that our relation to this Infinite, almost unknowable Presence is always a personal one. G-d is not simply a “Cosmic Being.” G-d is “my G-d.” G-d is not simply an abstract truth; G-d is a personal experience. The next stage in contemplation, then, after we’ve entered into G-d’s Presence, is to affirm that G-d is not simply “there;” G-d is there for me. “My Rock.” “My Re-deemer in times of trouble.” Our relation to G-d is the most intimate one imag-inable. G-d is beyond the limits of anything finite, yet still nurtures even the smallest, least significant aspects of creation. This is the true nearness of G-d to us.
It’s not for his or her own sake that the poet says ‘my G-d…’ Rather, it’s the poet’s way to tell us: this is your truth as well as mine. The poet is speaking our own words for us.
Having first affirmed that G-d’s is the Presence in which we are and will always be; having then affirmed that our relation to this Presence isn’t a lifeless one, but one of deep intimacy and caring, the poet concludes with “In G-d’s Hands I put my soul…” At this point, contemplation becomes “prayer;” especially “hitbodedut.” Whatever our need, whatever our concern, we give it to G-d. When we do, we’re filled with a relief and a confidence that can’t be described. If the first stage was primarily an intellectual one, and the second some combination of intellect and feeling, the third is utterly an act of the heart.
Adon Olam could be our “script” for contemplation. In fact, it’s a sequence that we go through almost spontaneously after a while. If in our early attempts at personal prayer, we’re naturally inclined to try the 3rd step first, we’ll probably find success at this to be intermittent, at best — a momentary, or temporary “letting go.” It’s the first two steps that allow us to move beyond haphazard spiritual experiences into something much more consistent and deep. They compel us to make permanent changes in our thinking.
Rabbi Joseph Gelberman was particularly inspired by the concluding line of the poem — “G-d is for me; I will not fear.” His affinity for it grew out of formally and informally considering the earlier content of the poem for many years. It’s not a fast process. It takes time and repetition. But we can truly progress in prayer and the direct, personal knowledge of G-d, by following the route mapped for us by Adon Olam. Even if we simply reflect on the steps we naturally find ourselves taking in developing our personal, private prayer, we’ll find them perfectly described in this poem’s words.