The ancients understood that water is the source of life, that rain and water are life-giving, and that water symbolizes cleansing, regeneration, renewal, fertility, birth, creation, and new life.
Rain is a powerful symbol in the covenantal relationship between God and the Jewish people; unlike Egypt, where the water comes up from the Nile and beneath people’s toes, Israel is a land where people must raise their eyes and thoughts to the heavens for rain.
Given rain’s prominent role in the agricultural world of our ancestors, it follows that rain features prominently in our daily prayers – מַשִּׁיב הָרוּחַ וּמוֹרִיד הַגֶּשֶׁם.
But once a year, there was a distinctly unique prayer featuring rain.
The Kohen Gadol would enter the inner sanctum of the Beis HaMikdash on Yom Kippur, perform the ritual service, and say one single prayer, the only prayer ever uttered at Judaism’s holiest site. A lot of it was about rain.
Given the heavy agricultural dependency, we might reasonably expect the religious leader and representative of the entire generation to request the right amount of rain at the appropriate time and place, and it does.
But one line of the prayer confounds our expectations.
The prayer asks God to ignore the prayers of travelers who don’t want to get wet along the way -וְלֹא תִּכָּנֵס לְפָנֶיךָ תְּפִלַּת עוֹבְרֵי דְּרָכִים.
It’s arguably the most important day and ritual of the year; if we had to nominate one significant thing to pray for, we might think of several. But even if we have understood how rain is of vital importance, why would ignoring travelers be the single most important thing we have to say about it?
The Alter of Kelm notes how powerful a fervent and heartfelt prayer must be to require counteraction by the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur in the Holy of Holies; even when it is transparently self-serving and contrary to the needs of the entire people at large.
But perhaps this prayer also reveals a worldview on how to think about the things we need most.
There is an interesting directive in the laws of sacrifices about a fire that had to burn in all weather conditions; even the rain:
אֵשׁ תָּמִיד תּוּקַד עַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ לֹא תִכְבֶּה – Burn an eternal flame on the altar, it can never burn out… (6:6)
On its face, this is a simple instruction to the attending Kohanim on duty to regularly stoke and fuel the flame so it would never burn out.
There was nothing magical about it; it could not and did not burn on its own. It required a complex and dedicated logistical operation with constant maintenance and monitoring, round-the-clock shifts year-round, rain or shine, snow or wind.
Pirkei Avos suggests that these efforts were met with divine assistance; rain would not quench the fire.
Water extinguishes fire; yet even in the realm of the transparently supernatural, our sages specifically understood the divine assistance to take the form of rain that wouldn’t put the fire out, as opposed to no rain over the fire. This strongly suggests that it’s not viable for there to be no rain here, there, or anywhere. It just doesn’t work that way.
The Kohanim would still have to work the fire in adverse weather conditions; God would ensure their efforts were successful.
The eternal flame wasn’t fueled by magic; it was driven by raw human willpower and was the source of fires in all the year-round services, from the Menorah to the incense, the crescendo of the Yom Kippur service when the Kohen Gadol said his prayer for the rain.
R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch suggests that this illustrates that the heat and warmth of life’s special moments are only fuelled by the grit and consistency of our daily grind. It wasn’t an eternal flame so much as a perpetual flame – אֵשׁ תָּמִיד.
The eternal flame wasn’t an external phenomenon; it came from within, entirely generated by humans. You are a miniature eternal flame; you must consistently stoke the fire under whatever conditions at whatever pace allows you to keep at it for decades without burning out.
The Kohanim stokes the flames in the pouring rain, beating winds, barefoot on the slippery stone floors. Our sages well understood the real miracle of the eternal flame; determined willpower and enduring efforts that were blessed with success. The Yom Kippur prayer rejects the immaturity of fair-weather travelers who do not accept that we live in a world that needs rain, a world where it must rain, a world where people are going to get wet and uncomfortable sometimes.
Don’t be a fair-weather traveler.
Embrace the crucial role consistency, perseverance, and perspiration play in life; the miracle of the eternal flame only happens once human effort is exhausted.
As R’ Chaim Volozhin teaches, we can’t choose our circumstances, but we fully control our direction and velocity – לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר.
R’ Joseph B. Soloveitchik suggests that we must broaden the scope and strengthen the intensity of our efforts because the aggregate of all outcomes is entirely contingent on our actions – השתדלות.
For the blessing to have a place to land, you need to do all you can; ask not for a lighter burden but broader shoulders.
All you can do is your best; you must hope for the rest.