How Can We Please God?
Parashat Ekev, Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25
by Rabbi D. Friedman, Jerusalem
In this week’s parasha, Moshe is summarizing the things for Israel to remember before he dies and a new leader takes his place, before Aaron dies and a new leader takes his place, and before the people enter Land of Israel.
And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I am commanding you today for your good?” (Deut. 10:12-13)
Moshe taught Israel: fear and love God by doing the mitzvot, with all our individual and collective hearts. This is a great summary teaching of all that Moshe had to teach Israel.
Throughout Jewish history, each successive generation of rabbis has attempted to boil the Torah down to its main principles, asking the question, What do we need to do to please God?
Shimon Ha-Tzaddik was among the survivors of the councils formed by Ezra; he used to say, The world depends upon three things: on Torah study, on serving God, and on kind deeds. The Torah sage Shimon, some 220 years before Yeshua’s time, understood that to please God, one had to study and do Torah, and carry out merciful deeds on behalf of others. (Avot 1:2)
R. Yohanan said: The reunion of the exiles is as important as the day when heaven and earth were created, for it is said, And the children of Judah and the children of Israel shall be gathered together, and they shall appoint themselves one head, and shall go up out of the land; for great shall be the day of Jezreel; and it is written, And there was evening and there was morning, one day.
To Yohanan, a 2nd century Israeli teacher, the most important way to please God is to fulfill the Torah, by being gathered back to Israel. He deduces this by the phrase “great shall be the day,” believing that God would redeem the world at this event.
The Torah academies of Babylonia asked this same question: how can we live a life pleasing God? They taught:
David came and reduced the guiding principles to eleven, as it is written, Lord, who shall sojourn in Thy tabernacle? Who shall dwell in Thy holy mountain? — [i] He that walketh uprightly, and [ii] worketh righteousness, and [iii] speaketh truth in his heart; that [iv] hath no slander upon his tongue, [v] nor doeth evil to his fellow, [vi] nor taketh up a reproach against his neighbour, [vii] in whose eyes a vile person is despised, but [viii] he honoureth them that fear the Lord. [ix] He sweareth to his own hurt and changeth not, [x] he putteth not out his money on interest, [xi] nor taketh a bribe against the innocent. He that doeth these things shall never be moved. ‘He that walketh uprightly’: that was Abraham, as it is written, Walk before Me and be thou whole-hearted. —Makkot 24a
Later Torah academies wrote on the same question: How do we live to please God?
Isaiah came and reduced them to six principles, as it is written, [i] He that walketh righteously, and [ii] speaketh uprightly, [iii] he that despiseth the gain of oppressions, [iv] that shaketh his hand from holding of bribes, [v] that stoppeth his ear from hearing of blood, [vi] and shutteth his eyes from looking upon evil; he shall dwell on high. ‘He that walketh righteously,’ that was our Father Abraham, as it is written, For I have known him, to the end that he may command his children and his household after him.
Torah academies continued to develop the question: How do we live to please God?
Micah came and reduced them to three principles, as it is written, It hath been told thee, O man, what is good, and what the Lord doth require of thee: [i] only to do justly, and [ii] to love mercy and [iii] to walk humbly before thy God.
This discussion continued throughout history: How do we live to please God?
Again came Isaiah and reduced them to two principles, as it is said, Thus saith the Lord, [i] Keep ye justice and [ii] do righteousness [etc.]. Amos came and reduced them to one principle, as it is said, For thus saith the Lord unto the house of Israel, Seek ye Me and live. But it is Habakkuk who came and based them all on one principle, as it is said, But the righteous shall live by his faith—Makkot 24a
Our rabbis understood Isaiah, Amos and Habakkuk, as well, to have guiding principles to their lives, and we learn of them here in Makkot 24.
Messiah Yeshua also took part in this ongoing Jewish and rabbinic discussion: What do we need to do to please God?
A Torah teacher asked Yeshua: “Rabbi, which is the greatest mitzvah in the Torah?” What was he asking him? “Rabbi, would you boil the Torah down to what we have to do to please God?” Not a bad question—a good one—one that lots of rabbis were asked and responded to throughout Jewish history until today. Yeshua responded:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Torah and the Prophets. (Mt. 22:37–40)
Now that we’ve heard the historical discussion on what we need to do, and the truth of Messiah Yeshua’s teaching on this, let us ask “How do we do what Yeshua said, in order to please God with our lives?” Messiah’s life in us gives us the empowerment and the desire, but what do I mean by “Messiah in us”?
When we believe in Yeshua as Messiah, our mind begins a transformation that God will direct (cf. Ro. 12:2). This powerful and dynamic transformation includes learning our true identity, which answers the question, “Who am I and why am I alive?” (cf. Ro. 8:16).
Putting our faith in the Messiah and serving God is a life that pleases God. As it is written, “This is the action that pleases God—to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:29).