Adon Olam: Timelessness
What is God?
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Some say that Adon Olam has been sung to more tunes than any other song in the world. While we cannot comment on the likelihood of that claim, we can say that Adon Olam has been sung to a heck of a lot of tunes. It wouldn’t be the least bit surprising if the number tops 100. It is a poem that was written with a very regular meter – down, up, down, up…the whole way through. Consequently, it can be sung in many different musical rhythms. You name the tune - it’s a good bet that it can be fit into Adon Olam. But more important than the meter are the words. They represent the very best of Sefaradic liturgical poetry. We don’t know for sure if Solomon ibn Gabirol actually wrote it, but he’s the best guess out there. It fits in perfectly with his long poem Keter Malkut. Here is the complete poem:
‘Master of the universe, who reigned
Before all things were created;
At the time everything was made by His will
Then His name was called ‘King’.
And after everything has ceased to be
He, the Awesome One, will reign alone;
And He was, and He is,
And He will be, in splendor.
And He is one, and there is no second,
To compare to Him, to associate with Him;
Without beginning, without end,
To Him is the power and the authority.
And He is my God, and my living Redeemer,
And a rock for my pain at the time of trouble;
And He is my miracle and a refuge for me,
The portion of my cup on the day that I call.
Into His hand I deposit my spirit,
At the time of sleep and when I will awake
And with my spirit is my body;
Hashem is for me, and I shall not fear.’
It is beautiful poem in the great tradition of Sefaradi poems devoted to God. Each stanza has four lines. Each line essentially has eight syllables with a couple of stretches to fit in with that number. The second and fourth verses of every stanza rhyme in Hebrew. It is hard to imagine a more fitting song of praise for the rational image of God that was cementing its way into the Sefaradic mindset. It has it all – creation by the will of God, God as king, God’s timelessness, God’s oneness, God’s uniqueness, God’s power, God as the personal redeemer, the Rock, the Refuge, the Holder of spirits, the personal God. This is about as concise and as perfect a way of describing the non-mystical Jewish image of God as could have been written. It’s a shame to spoil it by analyzing it.
First off, this is all very nice and beautiful, etc, but how did God reign before anything was created? And how will God reign after everything ceases to be? And if God does reign when nothing else is around, why is God only called ‘King’ when creation actually happens? What is the connection between God’s reigning and the line ‘He was, He is, and He will be’? If God didn’t have a beginning and won’t have an end, how did God come into being? What is the meaning of ‘my living Redeemer’? Why does the author say that ‘Hashem is for me’ in the last line? And of course, what image of God emerges from all this?
We’ll go through the poem line by line, answering the questions as we proceed. ‘Master of the Universe who reigned before all things were created’ – God’s reign does not resemble the rule of a human king, who needs subjects in order to reign. God’s kingship is independent of any creations to revere or fear Him. But while it’s all well and good for the poem to state this, how is it so?
‘And after everything has ceased to be, the awesome One alone will reign’. Perhaps these lines tell us something important about God’s kingship. By virtue of God being God, God is king. Creation is just one state of God’s reality. Without having created anything, with just the awesome God existing alone, God was already king. After all creation ceases God will also be king. How are we to understand the nature of God’s kingship?
‘He was, He is, He will be, in splendor’. The answer to these questions takes us into one of the most profound ideas of Jewish philosophical theology. God exists in a timeless reality. There is no difference between the past, the present and the future in the divine reality. There is simply being, existing. Our inability to fully grasp this blending of the past and the future into the present is a reflection of our being embedded into the created reality, in which the distinction between the three states is absolute. If we could somehow extricate ourselves from that time dependence, we would see that time itself is a creation and not an absolute feature of all reality. In the timeless reality of God the past is the present which is the future. If God is king in one, God is king in all, for they are all the same.
‘At the time when all things were made by His will, then His name was called ‘King’. Why is God’s name only called ‘King’ when everything was made? It seems that the created state has something over the uncreated state. The difference between them is not from God’s vantage point. It is from the vantage point of the creation. We can only call God’s name ‘King’ when we exist to do so. God can be king before creation since there is no before for God. But God cannot be called ‘King’ by anything else, since those other ‘things’ must be created if they are to recognize God and proclaim His kingship.
‘And He is one and there is no second to compare to Him or to associate with Him; without beginning, without end – to Him alone is strength and authority’. To ask the question of how God came into being is to assume that God has to come into being. It is to compare God to other creations. This is the natural assumption of any creation. We are limited by the horizons in which we exist. It is almost impossible for us to transcend those limits. But we have to do the impossible when it comes to understanding God. God transcends those limitations. God’s transcendence is such that it takes God out of the realm of creation altogether. No beginning and no end does not mean non-existent. On the contrary, it means that God doesn’t need to be created in order to exist – God is existence.
‘And He is my God, my living Redeemer; a Rock for my pain at the time of trouble; and He is my miracle, a refuge for me; the portion of my up on the day that I call’. What is a ‘living Redeemer’? Is there such a thing as a dead redeemer? The word ‘living’ is not used here to distinguish it from ‘dead’. It doesn’t mean living in the normal sense but in the sense of being actively ‘there’ in all situations of my life. The relationship between God and the poet has shifted. The first three stanzas imaged God in the abstract, absolute sense. God is timeless; God is king; God is existence. The last two stanzas deal with God on a personal level. God is ‘alive’ in the sense that in all my life, as I experience it, God is there for me. A ‘dead’ God would not be able to be there whenever I need it. A living God lives my life with me - redeeming me, being a rock and a refuge for me, occasionally acting in a manner that makes me recognize a miracle, but in general, just being there as a part of my life.
‘Into His hand I deposit my spirit when I sleep, and when I will awake; and with my spirit is my body; Hashem is for me, I shall not fear’. The final line sums up this entire poem. In the end, throughout all the thick and thin of life, the only constant is God. There are good times and bad times, there is a time when we are alive and a time when we are not. There are moments in life when we are awake and moments when we are asleep. Throughout it all, God is there. There is nothing to fear if we know that behind everything life throws at us, God is watching and waiting somewhere in the shadows. I, in my limited perspective on the world, in my limited perspective on my own life, think that I know how it should be done. But am I really so far above the fray that I can claim the authority and the strength to run the universe as I see fit? Only God lives above it all, knowing what was, what is, and what will be. And God, with that timeless awareness, passes into my immersed-in-time life to be with me. It is the greatest miracle there is. The King, who is timeless, is with me, who is not. I have nothing to fear.
Perceiving the Image
Can we relate to a God who exists beyond time and is just as at home in an uncreated reality as in a created reality? It is all about expanding the mind. We are limited by the reality of time, but why should that limitation restrict us from imagining a reality in which time plays no part? The imagination knows only the bounds that the rational mind places on it. If those bounds could be overcome there are no limits. In our dreams we face no such limitations. The impossible happens with regularity. The reality of dreams shows that it is at least possible to see beyond the restrictions of a time-oriented world. It is during sleep and while in the dream state that the soul ‘returns’ to God temporarily and catches a little glimpse of God’s timeless reality. We awaken, but we remember the faintest glimmer of that reality. That glimpse stays with us, carrying us through all of the ups and downs of the waking world. At the end of the day, God is timeless and that is the ultimate reality. There is nothing to fear from the roller coaster of time.
It is truly an amazing experience to catch that glimmer of timelessness. It is like tasting a wonderful new flavor for the first time. It will be difficult to sustain, just as it is difficult to hold on to the memory of a dream. But with concerted practice in allowing the imagination to roam into uncharted territories it can actually happen. It is in the realm of the imagination that this journey must take place, for the imagination is our sole pathway to the timeless world of dreams. It may come as a surprise such an intellectually oriented image of God can only be experienced through the haphazard faculty of the imagination. Timelessness is one of the royal roads to God. It is taking a step into a different reality and recognizing that it isn’t so foreign after all. A feeling of familiarity slowly creeps in. God was there for you all along.
Timelessness is one of those experiences that we’ve all felt at one ‘time’ or another but couldn’t quite place the feeling in any standard category. What if it were true that the time-oriented reality we exist in were not the ultimate reality after all? What if experiencing timelessness was the ultimate reality of God? How would this change our lives?
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