What is most appealing to human emotion is naturally most popular. Certainly that’s the case when the matter is appealing for many reasons.
Take this notion for example: “God just wants me to be a good person.” This appeals to us, as it is self-complimentary and it also fulfills our religious emotion. However, while that statement is true, it is only partially correct. Being good (which requires definition) is not the “total” of God’s desire, but only one component of a larger list of obligations. That is the primary error people make. For had God only desired that we are good, and nothing more, the Torah would not be so large! And God never says “All I want is that people are good”.
We must also be honest about our motives. Many times, one says this catch phrase in defense of not observing the “complete” Torah. This statement alleviates our guilt for not fulfilling the many laws that so many Jews abandon, like tefillin, tzitzis, Torah study, patient prayer, sexual restriction, modesty, courtesy, strict honesty in business, Lashon Hara, and Shabbos observance.
The number of laws found in the entire Torah is 613. And this does not include any Rabbinic laws. So let’s be fair with ourselves and dismiss this false notion that all God wants are “good people”. If we wish to be honest, what God wants is that men and women perfect themselves…in all areas. This includes how we treat others, but it does not end there. We must also be good to ourselves.
What is included in being good to others? This covers vast areas, from monetary matters, speech, deeds, war, courts, and under each of these there are dozens of issues that are guided by many Torah laws. So being good isn’t so easy! The French doctors who treated Arafat thought they were being good. Can you explain to them why they were not good? Do you have the true definitions and precise rules for deciding when we allow people to die, and when we save them? If you don’t, then you do not know what “good” means. Only God can determine this question, which explains why the world jury is still out on abortion. And since God alone is the creator of life, we cannot answer such questions without consulting His Torah. Any question about morality must be defined by God – not our subjective whims.
What I wish to emphasize is that most of us are in no position to make determinations about what is good or bad, unless we have studied all of God’s words on this matter…and His words fill volumes. And not only are we greatly ignorant about how we are to be truly good to others, but we’re also ignorant about how to be good to ourselves. And in fact, this is more important. For we are not always in the company of others, but we are always in our own company. Being good to ourselves is obligatory 100% of the time.
So how does God command that we be good to ourselves?
First and foremost, God desires that we are honest. Living a lie is a wasted life. Thus, God gave us five senses so we might attain accurate perception of the natural world. Studying this universe, we arrive at new insights and truths about the Creator. God created the universe to offer intelligent beings a means by which we may all realize the immense brilliance of the Creator. But God also gave us intelligence. This is because there is another world: the world of ideas, which drives this world, and is where we end up after this life ends. Without intelligence, we cannot make sense of this universe, nor will we earn a place in the afterlife, which endures eternally. That existence also offers us far greater enjoyment than the physical life. For there, no frustration or physical limitations exist. God designed humans to find the greatest fulfillment in the pursuit of knowledge. And this is how we can be good to ourselves, by engaging in the study of the universe, and the Torah. The Talmud also teaches that study is the greatest mitzvah of all.
There is so much more to be said, but for now, let us take the first step and admit that what God wants is no simple matter. And it’s not just to “be good”. He wants the best for us, and that is a lifelong task of Torah study, honesty, and fulfilling ALL His mitzvos. Just as we would never ignore a doctor’s suggestions, all the more true, we must not ignore God.