When the car flips, or flames leap from a crumbling home, there are those ordinary people who do extraordinary things. What is the process? What propels these men and woman to defy the natural instinct for self-preservation and save a stranger? Is there a pause of deliberation where one consciously overrides personal risk in favor of another’s life? Or is it instinctive, an internal flip of the switch that sends one to act first and reflect later?

A team of Yale researches collected 51 statements by some of these situational heroes.

“I'm thankful I was able to act and not think about it.”
“I just did what I felt like I needed to do. You don't think about someone making that big a deal out of it.”
“…I think it was just instinct. Kind of like my tendency….”

They then asked 300 volunteers to assess these statements. Unsurprisingly, faced with these testimonies, the volunteers described the bravery as “intuitive,” and not “carefully reasoned.1

Abraham was kindness incarnate. The Midrash colorfully describes the Divine attribute of kindness pouting, “as long as Abraham treads the earth, I have no work to do.2” Abraham’s tendency was gentle, not combative; warm and respectful, not abrasive. So when a conflict rose between the shepherds of Abraham and his nephew Lot, Abraham assumed a conciliatory stance and offered Lot his choice of the land.3

Which makes his protestation of Sodom and Gomorrah’s impending destruction so remarkable. G‑d comes to Abraham to reveal his designs for Sodom; what follows is man’s first rebuke of G‑d.

…And Abraham was still standing before the L‑rd. And Abraham approached and said, “Will You sweep away the righteous with the wicked...Far be it from You! Will the Judge of all the earth not do justice?4

That Abraham should be the first mortal to challenge the very moral arbiter of the universe is arresting. Abraham loved G‑d and was prepared to undergo great personal harm in pursuit of spreading awareness of Him. How did Abraham override his soft, obedient nature to stand up to the G‑d he would die for?

Read those introductory phrases closely, “Abraham was still standing before the L‑rd. And Abraham approached….” Why does Abraham “approach” if he was “still standing before” G‑d? What transpires in the space between those verses? Rashi, the classic commentator, offers that Abraham did not close a geographic gap, but an internal one. He trespassed his own proclivity for peaceful reconciliation into the foreign land of confrontation. Faced with the possibly unjust destruction of an entire city, Abraham discarded his natural composition and “approached—to speak harshly.5

Abraham, then, wrote the primordial script for heroic intervention.

It happens in one transformative moment. The heroes of the Yale study do not pause to weigh the predicament of another against their own natural interests and habits. Just as Abraham did not consider the repercussions of railing against the all-powerful Being whom he served.

On a less dramatic but no less meaningful scale, we are all presented with injustices that challenge our moral mettle. Almost twenty percent of the population has a disability,6 which translates into almost everyone knowing a friend, family member, or acquaintance with a disability. It is almost inevitable that this individual will confront some sort of barrier in his or her daily routine—this can be infrastructure that inhibits mobility and access, or attitudinal discrimination spurred by harmful stereotypes.

And then it happens as you are sitting in a meeting, or taking a walk, or with a friend for coffee, or at your family gathering—and there’s no smoldering car or city about to be decimated, but a fellow man or woman being treated as less than that. But your superior is your superior, and the system was designed by powerful people, and the owner of the shop is none of your business. You are on Abraham’s stage; he has already written the script. Discard your calculation, and “approach” with the innate knowledge that every one of us deserves respect and dignity.