Relationship lies at the heart of Shabbat practice. Relationship implies some particular commitment, and a level of mutual knowing and understanding.
The Torah urges that we observe these relational qualities as a sign between “Me and you”, between God and those who enter into relationship with God and thereby become holy.
And you (Moses) speak to the Israelites, saying: You shall surely keep my Shabbats, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am Adonai who sanctifies you. (Exodus 31:13)
Midrash: Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael
“for it is a sign between Me and you” – and not between Me and the nations of the world.
“throughout your generations” – to be observed throughout the generations.
“that you may know I am Adonai who sanctifies you” – why is this said? From the verse “And the Israelites shall keep Shabbat” (Exodus 31:16), I might have thought this included even those who are deaf mute, mentally incompetent, and minors. Scripture thus teaches “that you may know I am Adonai who sanctifies you” – I (God) only said this with regard to those who have the capacity to know.
“that you may know I am Adonai who sanctifies you” – for the World to Come. For example, as with the sanctity of Shabbat in this world – we derive that it is an approximation of the sanctity of the World to Come. And so it says, “A Psalm; a song for the day of Shabbat” – for the world which is completely Shabbat.
This midrash takes the latter part of Exodus 31:13 and renders teachings phrase by phrase. This midrash is deeply concerned with who can truly participate in Shabbat. The first two teachings emphasize that Shabbat is particularly for Jews, a heritage to hand down generation by generation.
The second two teachings emphasize that Shabbat’s essence is for those who cultivate awareness of holiness, and comprehend the connection between Shabbat’s holiness and the holiness of the World to Come.
The trio of deaf/mute (choresh), mentally ill/disabled (shoteh), and minors (katan) appears throughout rabbinic literature, conveying in concrete examples the general feature of “lacking awareness” – not of sound mature mind, not able to function fully in general society. The point to take from this teaching is simply that Shabbat observance is mandated only for those who have the faculties to internalize the reason for its observance – awareness of God who sanctifies Israel. The reason these categories are singled out is not to exclude anyone from community, but rather to issue a leniency from legal and ritual obligations that couldn’t reasonably be fulfilled in these situations.
The midrash offers two perspectives on Shabbat – a communal and intergenerational event, and an inner spiritual path. Both the communal and spiritual perspective are rooted in relationship to God – “between Me and you”. Shabbat is a sign of that relationship, a sign of God’s bestowal of holiness, and a sign of the ideal world to come that will sanctify everyday life with the peace found on Shabbat.