Six days work should be done. The seventh day is a day of complete rest, sacred to Hashem. Whoever works on the Shabbos day shall be put to death. The Bnei Yisrael shall observe Shabbos, to make Shabbos an eternal covenant for their generations.
Be’er Mayim Chaim: It seems unlikely that the Torah makes it mandatory for people to work six days of the week. For various reasons, there are always many people who are not employed or busy. Does the Torah really view them as violating halachah?
The Torah alludes here to a different kind of work: the spiritual labor obligatory upon everyone to properly establish the world’s spiritual backbone through the observance of the Torah’s mitzvos. Heeding the Torah’s prohibitions safeguards the world’s spiritual stature, preventing it from being diminished through the negative forces like the kelipos that can attach themselves to the kedushah of the world through the medium of our aveiros. The practice of the affirmative mitzvos empowers and elevates the world, by drawing all sorts of Divine influence and blessing to the world. Together, the prohibitions and affirmative obligations create the spiritual backbone of the physical world.
Shabbos is entirely different. It does not wait for us, does not require our activity to draw down holiness from the upper worlds. Its character, its supernal holiness are intrinsic and self-sustaining. They are simply there with the arrival of Shabbos each week.
The Torah therefore cautions us that those who labor on Shabbos must die. In other words, those who go about their halachic business with the same attitude as the rest of the week are liable to death at the hands of heaven for having desecrated the holiness of Shabbos! Even should they adhere perfectly to all the strictures against active violation of the laws of Shabbos, they can be considered Shabbos violators if they believe that their mitzvos are contributing to the drawing down of kedushah from Above. Shabbos doesn’t require the boost! Believing that it does belittles it, spurns its transcendent qualities.
Moreover – and this may come closer to Shabbos’ essence – we are instructed to mimic the ways of our Creator. Just as He rested from His work on the original Shabbos, so do we rest from our labors, even the spiritual ones. Shabbos proceeds quite nicely without our help.
A giant caveat accompanies this realization, however. While it is true that the kedushah of Shabbos is available without the help of our avodah, this does not imply that all people experience that kedushah equally. How Shabbos strikes a person depends entirely on how good a job he has done in purifying himself in advance.
Shabbos will work best for a person who has liberated himself from transgression and from the coarse desires of temporal existence (which are nothing more than the work of kelipos attaching themselves to his kedushah). For such a person, Shabbos surrounds him on all sides, sanctifying and purifying him.
For the person who remains mired in the desires shared with the animal realm, Shabbos is nothing similar. The kedushah of Shabbos is incompatible with the potent yetzer hora that rages within him. While the kedushah of Shabbos illuminates all the spiritual worlds, he experiences nothing but darkness.
For this reason, preparations for Shabbos traditionally includes bathing in hot water, and immersion in a mikvah. Rav Abahu2 implies that the primary agent of tevilah is fire, not water. Bathing in hot water is our way of immersing ourselves in the heavenly fire, introducing into our hearts a fiery passion to follow the dvar Hashem, without interference from any distraction. Neither rain nor snow nor material pursuit nor sensual preoccupation will get in the way of our fiery commitment to avodas Hashem.
We follow the bathing with immersion in a mikvah to purify ourselves of any tumah, and to purge ourselves through the waters of Divine chesed of any of the kelipos that have attached themselves to us.
After both of these exercises, we are ready to experience the kedushah of Shabbos.
Our passage alludes to this. “For their generations” in the original reads l’dorosom. Two words can be teased from the single one in Hebrew: l’doros tam. Shabbos works at peak efficiency when the generation takes pains to become tam – pure and refined of any transgression and any crippling desires. Then it can fully appreciate the gifts of Shabbos.
1 Based on Be’er Mayim Chaim, Shemos 31:15-16
2 Sanhedrin 39A