Consider someone who is going through a free will ordeal; it may be a man alone with a woman, or it may be any test of morality or conscience, any situation in which the pleasures of the body, for example, are pitted against the refinement of conscience.
Imagine a person who steps out of his office for lunch. He is about to enter the shellfish restaurant where he usually eats. He is accustomed to eating unkosher food; perhaps he was brought up with inadequate knowledge of the importance of kosher food, perhaps he has moved away from Jewish observance. As he is about to enter, he is struck by the thought that he should really consider what he is about to do. Perhaps there is something to the idea of kosher food, after all. Perhaps he should take it more seriously; perhaps changing to a kosher diet would be the spiritually correct thing to do. He is caught in an ordeal: his higher self is fighting for control, for the elevated choice of self control, of living up to the laws and values of his people. And his lower self craves pleasure, self-indulgence and the easy way of simply doing what feels good.
He stands there, locked in battle with himself. The battle may take quite some time, and it may be surprisingly difficult. He may stand there, sweating and shaking, for long minutes. Let us say he overcomes the desire for his accustomed meal, and decides to enter a kosher delicatessen instead, where he will order food which is not his favorite type of food at all.
This individual has achieved victory in a test. His higher self, his higher world of values, has overcome his lower self, his lower world of physical pleasures. He has grown to a new level; he is a new person. He has a measure of self-control which he did not have before, and he has made a move along the road to perfection of character, out of the grip of thoughtless desire.
What happens the next day? Our hero steps out for lunch again, and the same battle occurs: again he is tempted, and again he battles. But the battle is easier, the agony is less. Let us say he overcomes the ordeal. What happens on the third day?
If he overcomes his ordeal again, very soon he will be eating a kosher lunch with no battle at all. He is now in the habit of eating a kosher lunch. He has a new behavior pattern which costs no effort to maintain. He has outgrown his ordeal in that area of his life. That which he does out of habit is not at the point of free will; he has passed beyond being tested in that area and he no longer gains spiritual reward there. If there is no battle, there is no reward; if there is no exertion there can be no growth.
Of course, we should not become confused: for this individual, the benefits of kosher food still apply, and the harm of eating unkosher food is still avoided. But the special dimension of fighting the battle to acquire that particular mitzva as part of his life is no longer active.
And of course, now he will be faced with a new challenge, one which he could not have faced before. He was previously too insensitive, too much in the unthinking grip of his habits at the lower level; now, at his new level of sensitivity he enters the arena of new and more subtle battles. And if he wins at the new level, he grows again, and he will face new battles yet again when this level becomes old habit. Battles are always being fought at the point of free will, and that point is always changing.
A classic image has been used to illustrate this process: your point of free will is like the front line in a war. When two countries are at war, the sharp pain and conflict are felt at the front line. Although each country in its entirety is at war with the entire country of the enemy, the battle is only where they meet. Your higher self is locked in battle with your lower self, the battle is for victory over all that you are, but the conflict is felt only at the point of free will. As one army advances and the other retreats, the front line moves; as your higher self develops and your lower self is brought under control, the area of your free will shifts. And of course the battle can rage in either direction: the enemy can advance into your territory and force you to retreat, you can find yourself losing and sinking. That is exactly what free will means.
The war rages on, and it lasts as long as you live. There are advances today and retreats tomorrow, victories and defeats. Some setbacks are inevitable; you will not win all your battles. But the main thing to keep in focus is steady gain, steady progress towards controlling and mastering the personality. Your aim should be to win as often as possible and to learn from your failures so that even those can be used to build perfection in the long run.
Adapted from The Thinking Jewish Teenager's Guide to Life by Akiva Tatz, Published by Targum Press