“In God’s Hand I Place My Soul” (Part 1)
There are moments when our prayers and spiritual poetry (piyyutim) make profound declarations about life and death, about humanity and God. Often these moments are recognized as awesome and important, and there is a sense within the synagogue community of this significance; for example, in asserting the unity of God (the Shema’), God’s holiness (the kedushah), and the role of destiny (“Unetaneh tokef” on Rosh Hashanah).
Sadly, one of our great spiritual poems is too often seen as a vehicle for young children to sing a cute song and for the adults to fold up their talliyot and anticipate kiddush. Adon Olam deserves better than this, for it is a sublime piece of poetry, bridging elegantly the gap between theology and spirituality.
The reference to the time of sleep suggests that it was written originally for nighttime, and the poem remains part of the often neglected set of prayers to be recited immediately before sleep (see Siddur Sim Shalom for Weekdays, 169). Adon Olam is found as part of the preliminary morning service in traditional siddurim, but is most widely recognized as the hymn that brings Shabbat and festival morning services to a close.
In the middle hours of the day, we relate easily to the majestic aspect of God as Eternal Lord of the Universe, wielding power in past, present, and future. The assertion of Divine Unity echoes the Shema’. The second stanza makes a slightly more radical assertion about the nature of Divine Infinity—that even “after all is ended” (acharei kichlot hakol), God will continue to reign, alone and awesome. There is no way in which God is contingent upon humanity.
And then the poem becomes personal, linking human existence and emotional security to the relationship with God. Not only is God infinite and transcendent, but then we read “Hu Eli” (this is my God), the source of my strength. Then the language becomes softer and even tender: “In God’s hand I place my soul at the time of going to sleep” (Beyado afkid ruchi be’eyt iyshan). This responds to the universal primeval fear of sleep as analogous to death (the Talmud notes that “sleep is like one sixtieth of death”).
The poem continues commending the body together with the soul into God’s care, and concludes with affirming spiritual connection with God (from Psalm 118:6): “Adonai li velo iyra” (Adonai is with me so I need not fear).
This is a deep thought with which to end our Shabbat services, and also each waking day.