After much politicking by the Congressional Prayer Caucus, the words “In God We Trust” are now engraved in big gold letters at the Capitol Visitor Center. Good or bad, it got me thinking about what it is we supposedly trust God for. As far as I can tell, historically the term refers to our trust in God’s protection of our nation. But what does it mean for a nation to be protected by God?
The upcoming Jewish holiday of Sukkot, a week-long celebration beginning at sundown this Friday, is quite instructive in answering that question. The holiday, known to many Christians as Tabernacles, goes all the way back to the Hebrew Bible. Exodus 23:16 and Deuteronomy 16:13 describe it as an Israelite Thanksgiving (but without the turkey), while Leviticus 23:42-43 describes it as an exercise in collective memory — telling all future generations to spend a week living in sukkot, huts, to remember how their ancestors lived in huts as they made the 40 year journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.
The sukkah itself is temporary structure, usually constructed with wooden or soft fiber walls, and is traditionally used for all meals during the week of the holiday. In warm climates, many people even sleep in their sukkot, making it their home as much as possible for the week.
But how does any of that help us understand what it means for a nation to be protected by God? The answer depends upon how one understands what it means to sit in a sukkah.
According to the Talmud, there are two distinct possibilities. One view is that Jews recreate today a version of the actual huts in which the Israelites lived long ago. On this view, the holiday celebrates that we can always find some protection along the way and that, even if the journey is long, we will eventually get there. The second understanding in the Talmud says that the huts of today recall the “Clouds of Glory” (think Spielberg’s “Prince of Egypt” or DeMille’s “Ten Commandments”) in which the Israelites lived — that God actually housed people in the protective presence of God’s self.
Amazingly, or perhaps not, it is this mystical understanding which is recorded as the normative view and is the one which guides how contemporary sukkot are built. The Sukkah of today is a vision brought to life, of what it means to experience Divine protection. And the defining feature of this construction is that it must have a leaky roof!
That’s right, according to the laws of sukkah-building as recorded in the Jewish legal codes, for a sukkah to be a sukkah its roof must be able to allow rain in and those inside to see the stars above. In other words, Divine protection is many things, but it does not insulate us from every undesirable thing in the world, nor does it blind us to the beauty of those things which lie beyond it.
The sukkah celebrates being protected but not behind impenetrable walls. It reminds us that permeability is actually a good thing as long as there is not too much vulnerability. Even a divinely protected nation will have its rainy days, and even if God is providing the cover, its citizens are going to get wet from time to time. I wonder if those who lobbied so hard for the new inscription at the Capitol Visitor Center think of trust in Divine protection that way.