This week’s Torah portion, Terumah (Ex. 25:1 – 27:19) as well as the two weekly portions that follow it, provide specific instructions for building a Tabernacle to worship God, and in which God’s presence will actually dwell among the people of Israel. Every detail is laid out: the materials, the colors of the fabrics, the size and shape of each item which will be built and used. And once the sanctuary is built, God will dwell there among the people of Israel.
All this specific description seems foreign to the God we have come to know up till this point in the book of Exodus. God has seemed determined to be formless and transcendent; a pillar of fire here and a cloud upon a mountain there. Why is God suddenly acting like one of the Ancient Near Eastern deities for whom their worshipers built palaces? Perhaps it is because the Israelites needed it.
Modern Torah commentator Umberto Cassuto writes that at Mount Sinai, the people felt God’s presence, but “once they set out on their journey, it seemed to them as though the link had been broken, unless there were in their midst a tangible symbol of God’s presence among them. It was the function of the Tabernacle to serve as such a symbol”.
Common sense would tell us that God doesn’t need a sanctuary in which to dwell; God’s presence fills the whole universe. But we need material objects to remind us of God’s incorporeal presence. Even though the Torah portion begins, “Bring Me gifts”, the Tabernacle is the gift God gives to Israel, not the other way around.