Sandra Cohen
Intelligent, funny, a bit weird

Adon Olam, the Wheel, and Me

Adon Olam, the closing song to most services (and traditionally sung at the beginning of Shacharit, the morning service as well!), can be sung to almost any melody.  This is because, my musician husband patiently explains to me, the meter of the song is so basic.  Aside from the silly melodies that many use for holidays (the Star Spangled Banner on the Fourth of July; Maoz Tzur on, of course, Hanukkah; Chad Gadya on Pesach; and so forth), there are, it seems, an infinite number of lovely melodies – some lively, some more poignant – that are appropriate to use to end a congregational service.  As a rabbi of a small, singing congregation, it was often hard for me to choose.  Should we use the traditional one?  An old favorite?  The bouncy, repetitive one?  My husband, who played guitar for services and has a sense of humor as well, suggested a solution that he never thought I’d accept – but I did:  an Adon Olam wheel.  Divided into twelve options, this wheel had marked  off 10 different Adon Olam melodies to sing, as well as space for Ein Keloheinu and Yigdal, both of which I thought should be given a chance from time to time.  It stood about 4’6”.  At the close of services, I or our cantorial soloist, or a budding bar or bat mitzvah student, would spin the wheel, and accept its decision.

Singing Adon Olam marks passages in my life.  I remember being a little girl in the big sanctuary of the large synagogue my parents belonged to, listening to the organ play the solemn, yet joyful tune at the end of Shabbat or holiday services.  Adon Olam asher malach –Gd of the world who reigned even before there was something to rule over, before creation – what did that mean?  It was comforting to think that Gd exists before me, after me, within me and without, everywhere.  And of course, I had learned in Sunday school about how “Gd is one, there is no other.”  I felt proud; I understood Gd, I affirmed Gd, and I was part of this large community, with the cantor’s beautiful voice, and the rabbi who raised his arms and blessed us at the end of services.  Gd would turn Gd’s face to us and give us peace.

I trusted Gd, a bit secretly, because my dad was an agnostic; he thought religion was a bad idea, dangerous.  It could hurt people, he said.  But I liked being part of the congregation, reading the italicized words together, and especially the singing.  As I got older, I got to help lead High Holy Day services and join the youth group, a place where I, who was anxious and hurting, felt oddly safe.  And there was always the singing.  Adon Olam – Gd was before, and acharei ki’chlot hakol – and after all things, Gd will still be.  .  I loved the communal singing – a way of affirming my faith, of reaching out to Gd, of belonging.  I did not often feel I belonged

When I brought my newborn daughter home from the hospital, I began to sing to her.  So many songs, folk songs, Hebrew songs, songs from musicals.  But from the beginning, we also did nighttime prayers with her: Shema with the v’ahavta, and Adon Olam. My mother joked that she had to learn all the verses by heart, in order to help put her grandchildren (my daughter and her cousins) to bed at night!  At first, of course, picking a bedtime was random; when does a newborn “go to sleep” at night:  7? 9? 11:30? 2? 4?  But we started our ritual: a bath, into pajamas, a couple of books, and then prayers.  Holding her in my lap (or her father’s lap) and singing her ancient prayers made me feel safe, even as it readies her for bed and, as she grew, sleep.  The holding, the cuddling, the singing, the affirmation that Gd was with her as she slept even if her parents were not physically next to her.  And my baby was clear she preferred sleeping alone; no family bed for her.  After a kiss on both cheeks, we would hand her a blankie and make sure Teddy was in the crib, and to sleep she would (eventually) go.  While this was a small, first beginning, it was as symbolic step of letting go; I can’t protect her always.  We are separate.  Adon Olalm, the Gd of all, would watch over her.

4 ½ years later, I found myself in the ER, doctors and nurse rushing about me.  A stroke, they told me.  You are having a major stroke.  They sent me quickly to the MRI.  “Lie still, very still, while we look at your brain.”  It felt like I was there for hours. My mind was racing; I wanted to pray, but the words would not come.  I said a Psalm or two, and then my mouth was empty.  Adon Olam, I thought, and mentally began to sing against the pounding around me.  “You are my Gd and my life’s Redeemer,” I sang.  Help, oh help me to survive according to your will, I prayed beneath the familiar words.  “V’im ruchi, g’viati.”   Literally, this means, “And along with [giving You] my soul, I give my body; Gd is with me; I do not fear.” I was afraid.  Very afraid. But I also knew that I was in Gd’s hands, and through Gd, the hands of this very capable hospital.

So I sang this last verse, resting in the verbal pun of this last line.  The word “v’im” spelled with an ayin/ע means with – I give Gd my body with my soul.  I, however, for years, have thought it spelled with an aleph/א mean “if, “ IF I give you soul, then I may as well include my body.  It is harder, in many ways, give my soul over to Gd, to remind myself of my powerlessness in so many ways, to give up control.  I WANT Gd to have my body, to protect it as I move through life and to take it back when I die.  And while I want Gd to take my soul when I die, I want to be in control now, while I live.  But laying there, in that tube, singing Adon Olam over and over again, I began to understand what it might be to truly trust Gd, at least for that moment in time.  My lack of control was so clear.  All I could do was cling to the Holy One of Blessing, and, at the same time, count my blessings:  a loving husband right there beside me in that bustling ER; a healthy, cherished child; a mother who was getting on a plane to be with us as soon as possible; a congregant who was already arranging for my rehab at one of the nation’s top rehab centers; a congregation who would soon be burying us in lasagnas  and other foods; friends praying for me across the country; and friends lining up to help in any way possible; and doctors who were working frantically to save my body and mind.  “Gd is mine; I need not fear.” And, in my mind, over the next hours, day and even weeks, I could hear my community singing with me, a sacred melody sustaining us, carrying us through their chesed, loving-kindness and Gd’s chen, grace.

I do not know what happened to the Adon Olam wheel.  I had to leave my wonderful congregation soon after my stroke; the long-term effects left me unable to be a congregational rabbi.  A few years later, there was small split in the congregation, and included in a few of the folks who left were the cantorial soloist and another musician.  They took the wheel with them, because the new rabbi was not using it.  The splinter group grew smaller over the year, now meeting only for High Holy Days.  The wheel may be gathering dust in the leader’s basement.  And yet, I miss the wheel and its premise.  Shall we do a rowdy version tonight, or perhaps attempt to sing it in “7,” a rapid version I believe only my husband and a few other talented people can manage.  Or perhaps a slower, more thoughtful Adon Olam.  Gd will always reign over us, no matter the melody.  And, on occasion, the wheel will surprise us, and Yigdal will take its turn: in Gd’s loving-kindness, Gd will raise the dead; blessed is Gd’s name forever.

About the Author
Rabbi Sandra Cohen teaches rabbinic texts, provides pastoral care, and works in mental health outreach, offering national scholar-in-residence programs. She and her husband live in Denver, Colorado.
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