Philosophers debate the nature of altruism, the practice of being concerned with the welfare of others, and how self-interest can intersect with it.

Altruistically, Avraham is the first man to reach out to others about God’s ways; yet when God promises fame, family, and fortune, Avraham can hardly be considered selfless:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֶל-אַבְרָם, לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ. וְאֶעֶשְׂךָ, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל, וַאֲבָרֶכְךָ, וַאֲגַדְּלָה שְׁמֶךָ; וֶהְיֵה, בְּרָכָה. וַאֲבָרְכָה, מְבָרְכֶיךָ, וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ, אָאֹר; וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ, כֹּל מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה – Hashem said to Avram: “Go for yourself; from your land, from your neighborhood, and from your father’s house; to the land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those that bless you, and those that curse you I will curse; and in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” (12:1-3)

Rashi explains that Avraham must go for his own sake; he must seek family, fame, and fortune because he wants them – לֶךְ-לְךָ / לַהֲנָאָתְךָ וּלְטוֹבָתְךָ.

Why does God command Avraham, the paragon of altruism, to pursue self-interest?

Perhaps our understanding of altruism is slightly skewed.

The conventional wisdom suggests that pure altruism requires one person to sacrifice for another with no personal benefit.

Yet in practice, we rightly admire people who create or contribute opportunities for our communities; and we don’t respect people who let others walk all over them, which amounts to lack of self-respect, not altruism.

Perhaps the difference between the two is motivation. When our motives are extrinsic, we end up manipulating our social environment and relationships and end up resentful when outcomes don’t turn out the way we hope.

As the famous saying in Avos goes, if I am not for myself, what am I…? Rabbeinu Yonah explains that extrinsic motivation is fleeting; we need to pursue our goals for our own purposes – אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי.

Hashem tells Avraham to go on the journey for intrinsic purposes because it will be personally rewarding for him.

The Rambam says that wise people do the right thing because it is the right thing to do; any optimistic hopes about what may follow will always be secondary to doing the right thing.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches that only once we value ourselves can we learn to value others.

For Avraham to open his home to the world, he needed to have a house large enough to share with others, and something to share with them. He had to establish himself in order to help others – וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי.

The how and why are everything. It is perfectly ok to have lots of money, for example, but the qualifier is what we do with it.

Avraham is altruistic, but he is not selfless, which is extrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is outcome oriented so it cannot last – whether we win the deal, marry the person, or build the school, what happens then?

In contrast, intrinsic motivation is process oriented, which is more reliable in the long run, because it is objectively fulfilling.

The Torah does not expect or condone selflessness; it is not an ingredient for a lasting legacy. Hashem says to Avraham that he must take the journey for his own sake; not for God and not for others. His approach would only endure if it wasn’t contingent on something extrinsic.

The Seforno notes that Hashem promises Avraham that on this journey of self-fulfillment that takes care of others, he will not only be blessed; he will literally become a blessing – וַאֲגַדְּלָה שְׁמֶךָ; וֶהְיֵה, בְּרָכָה.

As the saying in Mishlei says, a kind man cares for his wellbeing, and a cruel man afflicts himself – גֹּמֵל נַפְשׁוֹ, אִישׁ חָסֶד; וְעֹכֵר שְׁאֵרוֹ, אַכְזָרִי. Altruism is possible, and altruism is real, although in healthy people it intertwines with the well-being of the self – our actions promoting our values; not other people’s approval.

It’s ok to establish and stand up for yourself. The balance to strike is that we also utilize our blessings to help others.

To be a Jew is to renew an ancient covenant, adding a link to the chain that bridges the ages.

For Jewish men, the covenant is expressed through the mitzvah of the circumcision, although the colloquial term בְּרִית literally translates as “covenant.”

What is the Jewish covenant?

When God engages Avraham to enter the covenant, God maps out a vision for humanity, blessing Avraham’s descendants with greatness, and the land of Israel. They just have to do one thing:

וַיֵּרָא ה אֶל-אַבְרָם, וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֲנִי-אֵל שַׁדַּי–הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי, וֶהְיֵה תָמִים – Hashem appeared to Avraham, and said to him; “I am The Omnipotent…. Walk before me, and be perfect ”. (17:1)

It doesn’t take long before one quickly realizes perfection is impossible.

But perfection is not in the ends but in the means. The Beis Halevi teaches that when we uphold the covenant to the best of our ability, we will find that we actually are perfect – הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי / וֶהְיֵה תָמִים.

Rabbi Akiva taught that in the same way we consider a loaf of bread a refined improvement from raw stalks of wheat, humans can and must improve the world around us.

The Gemara teaches that the name Hashem introduced Himself with, אֵל שַׁדַּי, expresses the concept that the Creator withdrew from creating so that life had space to be and grow – שאמר לעולמו די.

The Kedushas Levi notes that by necessity, God must form this space for us to have any input.

The Malbim explains that our active participation is the essential theme of the covenant, which is by definition a bilateral agreement. Covenants typically have a sign, such as the rainbow signifying God’s promise not to flood the world. Bris Milah is different, as the sign is not extrinsic – our bodies are live expressions of the covenant itself.

The symbolism of modifying our bodies as soon as we are born is a powerful visual metaphor we carry with us is that we can utilize and enhance our gifts and blessings to improve our world.

While we can’t be perfect, we can still be perfectly wholesome.

Abraham Lincoln famously said that any man can handle adversity; but if you wish to truly test a man’s character, give him power. Power and money are fungible, as both represent easy access to options.

It’s not unlikely that you know people whose zero-sum, all-or-nothing attitude became plain as day once they ”got ahead” after trying to hide it for a while; people who would forsake family, friends, respect, and integrity for a few more dollars reveal themselves when the opportunity arises.

People think that money and power corrupt, but more likely than the idea that it changes us, is the idea that it reveals our authentic selves by expressing our priorities.

Avraham and his family were blessed with tremendous wealth when they left Egypt:

וַיַּעַל אַבְרָם מִמִּצְרַיִם הוּא וְאִשְׁתּוֹ וְכָל-אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ, וְלוֹט עִמּוֹ–הַנֶּגְבָּה. וְאַבְרָם, כָּבֵד מְאֹד, בַּמִּקְנֶה, בַּכֶּסֶף וּבַזָּהָב. וַיֵּלֶךְ, לְמַסָּעָיו, מִנֶּגֶב, וְעַד-בֵּית-אֵל–עַד-הַמָּקוֹם, אֲשֶׁר-הָיָה שָׁם אָהֳלֹה בַּתְּחִלָּה, בֵּין בֵּית-אֵל, וּבֵין הָעָי. אֶל-מְקוֹם, הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה שָׁם, בָּרִאשֹׁנָה; וַיִּקְרָא שָׁם אַבְרָם, בְּשֵׁם ה – Avram went up from Egypt; him, and his wife, and all that he had, and Lot with him, into the South. And Avram was very rich in cattle, in silver, and in gold. And he went on his journeys from the South to Beth-el, to the place where his tent had originally been, between Beth-el and Ai; and to the site of the altar, which he had made earlier; and Avram called there in the name of Hashem. (13:1-4)

How do the Torah’s heroes handle the test of great wealth?

Upon Avraham’s return to Israel, the Torah makes it clear that his wealth hasn’t changed him; he returns to his old home, and his renowned altar on the mountainside – עַד-הַמָּקוֹם, אֲשֶׁר-הָיָה שָׁם אָהֳלֹה בַּתְּחִלָּה / אֶל-מְקוֹם, הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה שָׁם, בָּרִאשֹׁנָה.

In stark contrast, Lot’s attitude to wealth alienates him from the family, which causes the dispute:

וְלֹא-נָשָׂא אֹתָם הָאָרֶץ, לָשֶׁבֶת יַחְדָּו:  כִּי-הָיָה רְכוּשָׁם רָב, וְלֹא יָכְלוּ לָשֶׁבֶת יַחְדָּו.  וַיְהִי-רִיב, בֵּין רֹעֵי מִקְנֵה-אַבְרָם, וּבֵין, רֹעֵי מִקְנֵה-לוֹט; – The land was not able to bear them dwelling together; because their assets were so great. There was strife between the herdmen of Abram’s cattle and the herdmen of Lot’s cattle… (13:6,7)

The Torah implies from the beginning that money is what stands between Avraham and Lot – וַיַּעַל אַבְרָם מִמִּצְרַיִם הוּא וְאִשְׁתּוֹ וְכָל-אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ, וְלוֹט עִמּוֹ.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes that they drifted apart not because of a shortage of land, but because of such an abundance that they couldn’t figure out how to jointly manage it – כִּי-הָיָה רְכוּשָׁם רָב וְלֹא יָכְלוּ לָשֶׁבֶת יַחְדָּו.

The Malbim explains that people who can agree on principles can figure out a way to work together. Lot’s fortune had changed him, and Avraham’s had not. Avraham wanted to return to his roots, whereas Lot just wanted to accumulate more – there was no way for them to work together anymore. The assets had become a burden – כָּבֵד מְאֹד, בַּמִּקְנֶה, בַּכֶּסֶף וּבַזָּהָב.

The tension between the family leads them to separate, and Avraham magnanimously offers his young nephew the first choice of where he will go, and Lot chooses Sodom and the fertile Jordan Valley. The Torah lets us know what it thinks of Lot; he has literally and figuratively descended into the evil environment of Sodom, whose destruction is imminent – in contrast to Avraham, thanking Hashem with sacrificial offerings high in the mountains of Israel.

R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that tribulations unite us, but our real test comes in times of plenty and security.

In any relationship, whether business, personal, or romantic, it just won’t work if each partner is only out for themselves. Keeping score will create a mutual incompatibility and is a sure way to lose. The only way everyone wins is when partners look out for each other and let small things pass.

Relationships are always a binary choice of working towards the vision, or division. The Torah teaches us that families and relationships disintegrate when individuals lose sight of the bigger picture of common goals and let money get in between them.

The Torah’s ideal is that good fortune will enhance good character, instead of unmasking mediocre priorities.

Avraham is called the Hebrew, meaning stranger. He is counter-cultural.

In his resistance to social trends and public opinion, he earns the blessing of being a father of multitudes.

וַיּוֹצֵא אֹתוֹ הַחוּצָה, וַיֹּאמֶר הַבֶּטנָא הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וּסְפֹר הַכּוֹכָבִיםאִםתּוּכַל, לִסְפֹּר אֹתָם; וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ, כֹּה יִהְיֶה זַרְעֶךָ – And He brought him forth abroad, and said: ‘Look now toward heaven, and count the stars, if thou be able to count them’; and He said unto him: ‘So shall thy seed be.’

In his being different, God congruently treats him as of a different fate and can take him beyond the natural course of history – וַיּוֹצֵא אֹתוֹ הַחוּצָה.

What made Avraham different was that his belief in one God was that he expressed that belief by dedicating his life to kindness, justice, and education. On this basis, something remarkably unusual happens, and God has a soliloquy, where the Torah narrates God’s thoughts:

 וַה אָמָר: הַמְכַסֶּה אֲנִי מֵאַבְרָהָם, אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי עֹשֶׂה. וְאַבְרָהָםהָיוֹ יִהְיֶה לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל, וְעָצוּם; וְנִבְרְכוּבוֹכֹּל, גּוֹיֵי הָאָרֶץ. כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו, לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶתבָּנָיו וְאֶתבֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו, וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ ה, לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּטלְמַעַן, הָבִיא ה עַלאַבְרָהָם, אֵת אֲשֶׁרדִּבֶּר, עָלָיו  Hashem said to Himself: “Shall I hide from Avraham what I am about to do? Avraham will become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed through him. I know him; he will command his children and his house after him, that they may observe the way of Hashem, to do what is right and just; so that Hashem will bring upon Avraham that which He spoke of him.” (18:17-19)

This remarkable incident takes place because God must tell Avraham; the implication is that if God did not tell Avraham, Avraham would wake up in the morning, and find two cities blown off the horizon, and, believing that innocent citizens of Sodom were swept away with the guilty, he would no longer able to teach that Hashem is just, which is how he challenges God:

וַיִּגַּשׁ אַבְרָהָם, וַיֹּאמַר הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה, צַדִּיק עִםרָשָׁע – Avraham approached and said: “Will you really sweep away the righteous with the wicked?!” (18:23)

Avraham continues:

 חָלִלָה לְּךָ מֵעֲשֹׂת כַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה, לְהָמִית צַדִּיק עִםרָשָׁע, וְהָיָה כַצַּדִּיק, כָּרָשָׁע; חָלִלָה לָּךְהֲשֹׁפֵט כָּלהָאָרֶץ, לֹא יַעֲשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט. – “It profanes You to do such a thing – to slay the righteous with the wicked so that the righteous should exactly be the same as the wicked – that profanes You! Will the Judge of all the earth not act justly?” (18:25)

Hashem accepts Avraham’s premise that is unjust to punish collectively and destroy a whole group indiscriminately. Once God has shown Avraham that his principle is correct, Avraham negotiates how many innocents are worth saving:

וַיֹּאמֶר אַלנָא יִחַר לַאדֹנָי, וַאֲדַבְּרָה אַךְהַפַּעַםאוּלַי יִמָּצְאוּן שָׁם, עֲשָׂרָה; וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אַשְׁחִית, בַּעֲבוּר הָעֲשָׂרָה. – And he said: “Please, don’t be angry Hashem, and I will speak just once more. Perhaps we ten innocents can be found there?.” And Hashem said: “I will not destroy the city for the ten’s sake.” (18:32)

Of course, God destroys the city anyway, as God was going to, knowing that there were no innocents to save, aside from Lot and his family.

This highly unusual dialogue is for the stated reason that Avraham is going to teach his descendants about justice and integrity – לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶתבָּנָיו וְאֶתבֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו, וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ ה, לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט.

Unlike Noah, who accepts God’s condemnation of his world, Avraham establishes a precedent followed by Moshe, Jonah, and many others of brazenness towards Heaven, for Heaven’s sake – חוצפה כלפי שמיא.

R’ Jonathan Sacks explains that there is no answer to the question of injustice in the world, except that asking the question might cause us to live the response through our actions.

Avraham was loyal to God and committed to justice, but in this conversation, his loyalties were at odds. The test is that God would appear unjust to see whether Avraham swayed towards justice or to God. By appearing to lose the staged argument, God demonstrates a commitment to justice, which paradoxically validates Avraham’s loyalty to God. Thus, the story of Abraham testing God’s commitment to justice turns out to simultaneously be a story of God testing Abraham’s commitment to justice.

But he cannot teach what he does not yet know! R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that God orchestrates the whole conversation simply so that Avraham and his descendants – we the readers – can learn that there is nothing sacred about accepting suffering or wrongdoing.

It is up to us as the bearers of Avraham’s legacy to stand up for what is right. Do not turn the other cheek when there is something that can be done to make it right.

The Torah is written in the language of humans, and storytelling is one of humanity’s most powerful tools.

Some parts of the Torah are communicated in the forms of laws, and others in the form of stories.  Integral messages can be passed through the ages, each generation filtering it through its wisest minds, gleaning new insights in each telling.

Some authorities say that the stories of our tradition are not about ordinary people like you and me; they are about perfect saints who were qualitatively different to us.

This is not a universally held position, and with good reason. If the stories are about holy people who are different to us, how can their stories relevantly guide our lives?

R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests that power of the Torah is that unlike other cultures, our heroes are not gods or demigods, they are mortal men. God is God, and humans are human.

God promised Avraham family, fame, and fortune; yet had to fight for them his whole life. When famine struck his new home in Israel, he decided that he could take better care of his family in the fertile land of Egypt. While this was an eminently reasonable decision to have made based on his assessment of the facts; he placed Sarah in a highly compromising situation that required divine intervention after she was taken by Paroh.

The Ramban criticizes Avraham for leaving Israel and not waiting for God’s promises; and by abandoning Israel, he risked the promises and endangered the family he was trying to protect.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes that this very discussion is an essential feature of our rich heritage.

Our ancestors are the prototypes of what the ideal person looks like, but the Torah does not whitewash its heroes; they are still human.

Our role models cannot be idealized characters; because if they weren’t like us, they wouldn’t be relevant. What makes them great is precisely the fact that they weren’t so different from us. They faced the same kinds of problems we do: how best to protect and provide for their families; and how to maintain their beliefs and practices while trying to do the right thing.

Avraham is first and foremost in our pantheon of great figures because, throughout his struggles, he maintained his integrity and persevered – sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly. He was not born holy, and he did not possess some innate characteristic that gave him a holiness advantage.

The Torah speaks in whole truths to give a three-dimensional view of the people we look up to. The Torah is for and about humans; it’s ok to be human.

The Maharitz Chajes notes that stories are the Torah’s medium for teaching us about morality because mature people understand that moral choices are often difficult, and rarely black and white. Only a story transmits the eternal turmoil of moral responsibility.

The Torah is replete with stories about how great people make mistakes. Perfection is ever-elusive, but greatness is not.

The perfect is the enemy of the good.

One of the most beautiful promises ever made was the one God made to Avraham about his future descendants:

ויוצא אתו החוצה ויאמר הבט נא השמימה וספר הכוכבים אם תוכל לספר אתם ויאמר לו כה יהיה זרעך – He took him outside, and said, “Look at the heavens above. Count the stars, if you ever could! So will your offspring be.” (15:5)

This can be read literally, that Avraham’s lineal and intellectual descendants would be numerous – most religions count Avraham as their precursor.

Rabbi Shlomo Farhi suggests a figurative approach. Perhaps כה יהיה זרעך means that just like Avraham would look heavenward and dream of something better, his children would be stargazers as well.

Looking beyond the present, hoping and working towards a better future.

When God reached out to Avraham to leave his homeland, Avraham never knew where he was going. Avraham was told לך־לך, and he just went.

The Sfas Emes finds this interaction, the first of it’s kind, instructive as to what it means to be a Jew.

There is no destination because to be a Jew is an ever-evolving mission. Being a good Jew calls for something different based on the scenario – a good Jew during the Inquisition does not look the same as a good Jew in New York today.

Without a singular focus on the outcome, Avraham could put his heart and soul into the process. Every step Avraham took brought him somewhere new. But the effort for every step was the same because each step could be the last. In a way, לך־לך is an instruction to go לך – within yourself. A lifelong journey of self-discovery. There is no destination because it’s a challenge – how deep can you go? The process is the purpose of the instruction, not the outcome. Each step compounds development.

We never control circumstances or outcomes, but we control our actions and ourselves. It was this desire and commitment to progress that mattered. This attitude was characteristic of Avraham, the first prototype of the kind of person God wanted people to emulate.

One of the most beautiful parts of Tanach is God’s promise to never forget the sacrifice and belief the Jewish people once showed:

כֹּה אָמַר ה’, זָכַרְתִּי לָךְ חֶסֶד נְעוּרַיִךְ, אַהֲבַת כְּלוּלֹתָיִךְ–לֶכְתֵּךְ אַחֲרַי בַּמִּדְבָּר, בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא זְרוּעָה – So says Hashem, “I remember the kindness of your youth; the love of your commitment. You followed me into the desert, into a barren land…” (Jeremiah 2:2)

The model for this is Avraham. Avraham was the first to put himself out there, long before God spoke to him. His entire life was about exerting himself to reach out to others. God only spoke to him later on in his life.

Avraham wasn’t born special. God’s call was always out there, and others heard it – there was Shem, Ever, Methuselah. But Avraham was the first to take the initiative and try to make his world a better place.

One of his greatest moments came when he was lame and exhausted, on a searing hot day. There was every excuse to take it easy, but that’s not what Avraham stood for. In his idiosyncratic way, he did the only thing he knew how. He went out there and tried to make an impact. He tried to show other people the way to build a better world.

Maybe that’s what לך־לך means – a better world looks different to every generation. But the duty and commitment are the same.

To be a Jew is to be a tool of disruption.

Avraham and Hashem spoke many times. We find that after the instruction to leave his birthplace, something happens that never happened before:

וַיִּפֹּל אַבְרָם, עַל-פָּנָיו; וַיְדַבֵּר אִתּוֹ אֱלֹהִים, לֵאמֹר – Avraham fell on his face, and God spoke to him. (17:3)

Avraham learns a glimpse of the future; marked by the sign of the covenant of circumcision.

Avraham stumbles in recoil, as though he were burned. The stumble is unique to this command – Avraham doesn’t fall over at any other time Hashem speaks to him.

Why had it never happened before?

R’ Chaim Soloveitchik explains that until a command is delivered, there is no counter-deficiency in not complying. But once he received such an instruction,he was defective, and literally could not stand in God’s presence in such a state.

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that this cuts both ways.

The standard expected of all Jews is nothing less that absolute, perfect dedication and diligent moral consciousness. Yet the standard of absolute perfection is a long way away from anything less than that, and perhaps out of reach as well. It’s a big leap to make.

But improvements can be gradual and incremental. So long as a person is not ready to for more responsibility, it doesn’t count against them – it’s perfectly reasonable to not be ready.

But when the moment arrives that they are ready, yet they are content to stay put, the burden counts against them – וַיִּפֹּל אַבְרָם, עַל-פָּנָיו.

Always chase more responsibility, and demand a higher standard of yourself. Moral consciousness is a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t run before you can walk. One step at a time is an effective strategy.

Hashem’s very first communication with Avraham is the immense challenge to abandon all he grew up with:

לך לך מארצך וממולדתך ומבית אביך אל הארץ אשר אראך – “Go for yourself, from your land, your birthplace, and the house of your father, to the land which I will show you”. (12:1)

The sequence of departure is counter-intuitive. First, you leave your home, then the neighborhood, and only then the country. Why does the story focuses on where is to leave, rather than where he is to go, and in a strange order? The Nesivos Shalom explains that Hashem’s actual command to Avraham was that he discard the negative characteristics endemic to these places. Our environment is instrumental to our development as human beings. The more familiar the environment, the greater the effect it can have.

The Nesivos Shalom explains that the essence of the command was to discard the negative influences he was exposed to in these environments. He was going somewhere new, to become something new. Old ideologies would have no place in this new vision.

The circles of our environments are central to our development. The closer the circle, the greater the effect of exposure.

The home environment is more influential than a neighbourhood, which itself is more influential than a country. The easiest to discard is the place. It’s harder to transcend where you come from. And it’s hardest to forget what you learnt from home.

The Sfas Emes explains that a mark of great people is to actively seek challenges and opportunities that test their qualities. Avram was the first person to intuitively understand the vision of moral consciousness humanity could exhibit. But he’d have to show it, and that couldn’t happen in the stagnant place he grew up.

Who and what we surround ourselves with have a key influence on our development. We need to actively make sure that they are good influences.