When Avraham pleads for Sodom to be spared, he speculates that perhaps fifty righteous people would make the city worth saving.

Hashem agrees:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה, אִם-אֶמְצָא בִסְדֹם חֲמִשִּׁים צַדִּיקִם בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר–וְנָשָׂאתִי לְכָל-הַמָּקוֹם, בַּעֲבוּרָם – Hashem said: “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous in the city, then I will forgive all the place for their sake.” (18:26)

The Ibn Ezra notes that the repetition of “in Sodom” and “in the city,” implies that these people are righteous in public – בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר.

R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch teaches that righteous people live among and interact with other people, leading by example and inspiring their communities, like Avraham himself. A righteous man is not hidden away with books but is part of a community -including its sinners – as a teacher and a neighbor.

This remarkable point teaches a tremendously portable lesson about Sodom’s destruction; Sodom was not doomed because of its evil, but because no one was willing to work for its salvation. If even 10 such people had been working with the public to improve the moral state of the community, the city might have been saved.

Nechama Leibowitz notes that Jeremiah mentions the same theme:

שׁוֹטְטוּ בְּחוּצוֹת יְרוּשָׁלִַם, וּרְאוּ-נָא וּדְעוּ וּבַקְשׁוּ בִרְחוֹבוֹתֶיהָ, אִם-תִּמְצְאוּ אִישׁ, אִם-יֵשׁ עֹשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט מְבַקֵּשׁ אֱמוּנָה–וְאֶסְלַח, לָהּ – Run through the squares of Jerusalem and search its streets; if you can find just one single man who practices justice and seeks the truth, I will forgive her! (5:1)

The Radak explains that no righteous men could be found in the streets of Jerusalem because they were too afraid to stand up for what they believed in publicly.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe said that our souls are candles God gives us to illuminate the world, like the Chanukah Menorah, which is ideally positioned by the front door or window, so that it lights up the inside of our homes, but outside as well. He famously dispatched followers to the ends of the earth based on the understanding that part and parcel of wholesome observance is seeking others out to help them find their own religious expression. The discomfort of swimming against the tide of popular culture is the sacrifice that validates how much we care about other people – if we abandon those who are wandering or lost, do we care about others at all?

R’ Mordechai Gifter taught that altruism is superior to empathy; because while empathy requires us to tune in to other people’s needs, whereas altruism requires positive outreach – Avraham had no-one to help, so he stood outside his home to find someone to take care of.

The few can save the many, so long as they care enough about their communities to get involved – בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר / בְּחוּצוֹת יְרוּשָׁלִַם / בִרְחוֹבוֹתֶיהָ.

A single candle can dispel a lot of darkness.

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.

Humans are the apex predator on Earth. We possess superior intelligence, which we communicate through speech in order to cooperate with other humans, giving us a considerable advantage in forming groups, as we can pool workloads and specializations. Speech is the tool through which we actualize our intelligence and self-awareness.

Through speech, we have formed societies and built civilizations; developed science and medicine; literature and philosophy. Crucially, we do not have to learn everything from personal experience, because we can use language to learn from the experience of others.

The Torah holds language and speech in the highest esteem because words are tangible. Indeed, they are the fabric of Creation – וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, יְהִי אוֹר; וַיְהִי-אוֹר.

R’ Jonathan Sacks notes that the concept of covenant is a performative utterance that creates a relationship between two people – a mutual commitment created through speech. Whether it’s God giving us the Torah, or a husband marrying his wife; relationships are fundamental to Judaism. We can only build relationships and civilizations once we can make commitments to each other.

We make important decisions based on thoughts and feelings based on words on a page or a conversation with someone. It has been said that with one glance at a book, you can hear the voice of another person – perhaps someone dead for thousands of years – speaking across the millennia clearly and directly to you.

Given the potency of speech and language, the Torah emphasizes in multiple places: the laws of the metzora; the incident where Miriam and Ahron challenged Moshe; and even the Torah’s choice of words about the animals that boarded the Ark:

מִכֹּל הַבְּהֵמָה הַטְּהוֹרָה, תִּקַּח-לְךָ שִׁבְעָה שִׁבְעָה–אִישׁ וְאִשְׁתּוֹ; וּמִן-הַבְּהֵמָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא טְהֹרָה הִוא, שְׁנַיִם-אִישׁ וְאִשְׁתּוֹ – Of every clean creature, take seven and seven, each with his mate; and of the creatures that are not clean two, each with his mate. (7:2)

The Gemara notes that instead of using the more concise and accurate expression of “impure,” the Torah uses extra ink to express itself more positively – “that are not clean” – אֲשֶׁר לֹא טְהֹרָה הִוא. The Lubavitcher Rebbe preferred to refer to “death” as “the opposite of life”; and hospital “infirmaries” as a “place of healing.”

The Torah cautions us of the power of speech repeatedly in more general settings:

לֹא-תֵלֵךְ רָכִיל בְּעַמֶּיךָ, לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ:  אֲנִי, ה – Do not allow a gossiper to mingle among the people; do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor: I am Hashem. (19:16)

The Torah instructs us broadly not to hurt, humiliate, deceive, or cause another person any sort of emotional distress:

וְלֹא תוֹנוּ אִישׁ אֶת-עֲמִיתוֹ, וְיָרֵאתָ מֵאֱלֹהֶיךָ: כִּי אֲנִי ה, אֱלֹהֵיכֶם – Do not wrong one another; instead, you should fear your God; for I am Hashem. (25:27)

It’s interesting that both these laws end with “I am Hashem” – evoking the concept of emulating what God does; which suggests that just as God speaks constructively, so must we – אֲנִי ה.

The Gemara teaches that verbal abuse is worse than financial damages because finances can be restituted but words can’t be taken back.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught that as much as God creates with words, so do humans.

Of course, one major caveat on harmful speech is the intent. If sharing negative information has a constructive and beneficial purpose that may prevent harm or injustice, there is no prohibition, and there might even be an obligation to protect your neighbor by conveying the information – לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ.

Language distinguishes humans from other animals. It’s what makes us human. God creates and destroys with words, and so do we.

Rather than hurt and humiliate, let’s use our powerful words to help and heal; because words and ideas can change the world.

We believe that we are judged on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur for the year gone by and the year to come.

If our forecast is inescapable, why would we spend the year hoping for anything different?

While we believe in a Judgment Day, we nonetheless believe that it is still only a snapshot in time and that with repentance, prayer, and charity; we can change our fates – וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹעַ הַגְּזֵרָה.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe notes that the conventional translation of these words obscures their literal meanings.

The word for repentance means homecoming or return – because however lost we may be, we can find our way home – תְשׁוּבָה. The word for prayer means judging ourselves through earnest introspection – תְפִלָּה. The word for charity means justice – because it is something we dispense ourselves – צְדָקָה.

These are all aspects of ourselves that we have agency over.

R’ Micha Berger notes that they each parallel the three kinds of relationships we have – with God; with others; and with ourselves.

Reminding ourselves that there is a God who wants us to be more than sentient mammals; who watches over us, and what that means for the way choose to live are expressions of Tefila that we control.

Giving charity; volunteering; speaking kindly; helping a neighbor, and appreciating family and friends are all expressions of Tzedaka we control.

Improving ourselves; developing a more even temper; cultivating humility, and choosing to live an authentically Jewishly oriented lifestyle are all expressions of Teshuva that we control.

Improving just a single characteristic constitutes a change substantial enough that we believe it can change the future.

You are the master of your fate and the captain of your destiny.