"Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts (t'rumah); you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved." (Exodus 25:2)
The Torah tells us precisely what gifts the people are to bring: gold and silver and copper and blue and purple and crimson and more. These are the gifts. V'asu li mikdash v'shachanti b'tocham, "Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them" These are the gifts . . . and this is how you shall make it. "Exactly as I show you . . . ken ta-asu, so shall you make it" (Exodus 25:8-9).
As we contemplate this instruction in our homes or our synagogues, we think about bringing our gifts in hope that God will dwell among us. But what gifts do we bring? Ours are not made of colorful yarns or tanned skins or acacia wood. What exactly is expected of us, we whose hearts are so moved? I sometimes wonder where the Israelites got all that stuff in the wilderness. I picture them carrying it in their backpacks, along with the granola bars and first aid kits and sunscreen for their 40-year hike in the Sinai. I imagine the moms saying, "Just pack it, trust me, you just might need it along the way - you never know." How do you know what to pack for a journey into the unknown? And how do we know what gifts to bring to create a place for God to dwell?
Some of the gifts that we bring are material gifts: the physical things that are needed for our synagogues and schools. We offer books and scrolls and chairs and curtains, or the funds to purchase them, so that we and our communities have what we need to furnish our places of worship. Some of the gifts that we bring are our voices: we sing and speak the words of our sacred texts and melodies, as we praise God alone or together. Some of the gifts that we bring are in our minds and hearts: we study and teach, we listen and respond, we laugh and we cry. Each of us brings what we can, "from every person whose heart is so moved."
God says of the Israelites: V'asu li mikdash v'shachanti b'tocham, "Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them." Theoretically, God did not need the sanctuary in order to dwell among the people. After all, does the God who created the universe and split the sea need a human-made dwelling place? No, what God is saying is that some human effort is required if the people want God to be among them.
Pinchas H. Peli1 wrote of the command to bring gifts for the sanctuary:
"Besides the immediate purpose of the campaign, to collect materials for the building of a sanctuary, it also serves an educational purpose: to convert the people from passive participants in their relationship with the Lord, as constant recipients of His gifts, into active partners.
"The in-dwelling of God among the people cannot take place as long as the people are passive and do nothing to help bring the sacred into the world. "And let them make me a sanctuary—that I may dwell among them." My dwelling among them is on the condition that they make the sanctuary. . . . Man must start out on the path towards God . . . in order for God to meet him half-way as his partner in the act of sanctification."
As magnificent as some of our sanctuaries are, and as inspiring as our places of worship are, we still understand that it is not the place where we find God that is of primary importance. The physical space is but one tool, one means of reaching the sacred. We all know people who claim that they find God in nature rather than within the walls of any building. Our tradition recognizes this as well, especially in the alternate reading of a verse from Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel, a 19th Century commentator). He chose to read v'shachanti b'tocham, "I will dwell among them" as "I will dwell within them." He wrote: ". . . in them, the people, not in it, the sanctuary. We are each to build a Tabernacle in our own heart for God to dwell in."2
The gifts that we bring indicate that we want to give the offering of our hearts. We understand that we must be active participants in our relationship with God; that we must do something, bring something, in order for God to dwell in our midst. And we know that ultimately the most sacred dwelling place for God is within our own hearts. We offer, from our hearts, to bring God into our hearts. These are the gifts . . . from us and from God.
Pinchas H. Peli, Torah Today: A Renewed Encounter with Scripture (Washington, DC: B'nai B'rith Books, 1987), pp. 82-83
See gleanings on T'rumah, W. Gunther Plaut, gen. ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition (NY: URJ Press, 2005), p. 557