Two Shabbats ago, in the Torah portion Yitro, God appeared to the people in an awesome show of splendor from atop Mount Sinai. "All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance."
Moses warned them not to come too close to the border of the mountain, and when God appears to them they understand why the vision of God is terrifying, and they do not want to come closer. The people are happy to let Moses go up the mountain alone and commune with God.
In this week's portion, Terumah, we find something different. God tells Moses to ask the people to bring God gifts "from every person whose heart so moves him." God requests beautiful gifts — gold and silver, precious stones and woods — in order to build a sanctuary. The rest of the portion recounts God's explicit instructions to Moses about how the sanctuary should be built.
Far from putting on a sound and light show so that the people will keep their distance, here God is reaching out to the people –building a relationship with them by asking them to give gifts, and showing concern and attention for them by giving exact instructions for the tabernacle.
The reason for this new mode of relationship is clear. "Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them." The commentators note that this sanctuary will be a meeting place for God and the people, a place where Moses can go for instructions without having to leave the people and go up the mountain.
The verse does not say to make a sanctuary so God can dwell in it. Rather, God desires this sanctuary so that God might "dwell among them," the people, the community. The special space of the sanctuary will provide a place to focus communication. It is a tool to allow God to dwell more closely among the people.
Rabbi Sharon Sobel points out in The Woman's Torah Commentary that it is the involvement of the community coming together to make the sacred space that allows God to dwell in it — not the space itself. This is why God instructs each member of the community whose heart so moves them to contribute to the sanctuary. In order for God to dwell among them, they must be the ones to actively welcome God.
This is, after all, what it means to be part of a community. Many people seek their connection to the divine or their sense of spirituality in solitude, out in nature on high mountains, waiting for the spectacular sound and light show to catch their attention. This is an ancient and sacred model of worship — one used by our biblical ancestors, including Moses, and recommended even in modern times by Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, who suggested spending time alone in the fields each day to commune privately with God.
This is a model of going up to God, rather than of bringing God down to dwell among the people. The second model, of building a sanctuary so that God can dwell among us, is also necessary. It teaches us to work together to make the world more beautiful, to listen carefully to God's instructions and follow them, and to give joyously, because our hearts are moved.
In this working together, we learn to care about each other, and this is where we encounter the dwelling of God.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College.