The most important thing to grasp about being human is the fact that you have free choice. You make the decisions. You are responsible. We shall attempt to show that the secular world is not so sure about this, but as a Jew, you have to know that everything significant about life depends on this idea.
Let us explore the concept of free will and understand why it is essential in coming to grips with who you really are.
What are the components of human free will and what are its limits?
Free will applies only in the area of morality. That is, you are free only when it comes to decisions and actions which relate to your personal battle when you are tempted to do that which is immoral. Only in the arena of the battle between good and evil are you free to win or lose. Only when you are challenged with a situation in which you can act as you know you should, in line with your higher self, and at the same time you are tempted by the more physical, the more sensuous and animalistic, can you apply your free will and battle the ordeal.
You have very little free choice outside the area of morality. Your health, wealth and many other areas of life have large components which cannot be controlled no matter how you try. But in moral tests, you are entirely in control. That is where you are free.
Of course there are many things outside the realm of morality which you can choose, but those choices are purely technical: certainly you can choose a particular flavor of ice cream, for example, or which socks you will wear today; but those choices are not uniquely human. Animals also choose options like which food to eat and where to sleep; those areas have no inner meaning, they are mechanical issues. Here we are talking about the unique free will of human beings, that faculty which makes you unlike any animal. The area in which animals cannot make any choices is the area of morality. No animal chooses between right and wrong; no animal battles to overcome its lower self and achieve a more spiritual state by means of its moral ordeals. That is exactly the area we mean when we talk of human free will; the battleground of human free will is precisely the area of moral ordeals, the striving for higher values against the pull of our lower selves.
How free are you? What is the nature of this freedom? What about someone who has tremendous disadvantages outside of his or her own making – disadvantages of upbringing, emotional problems, lack of natural talents, financial limitations or anything else which seems to make personal progress difficult? Do we say that such a person has less free will? Do we say that such a person is less accountable for his or her moral failures? Perhaps such a person is not accountable at all?
This requires some thought. Let us study the interaction between free will and those things which affect it.
Many factors affect your area of free will; in fact, many factors outside of your free will determine what your ordeals will be, and how difficult those ordeals will be. But the critical issue to understand is that at the moment of ordeal, at the point of choice itself, you are entirely free. You may find yourself in a particular test through no fault of your own, through causes and events entirely outside your control. But how you respond in that test is entirely up to you.
Each person has a point of free will which is determined by many factors. In fact, in various areas of life you may have very different levels of free will; some types of ordeal may be much more difficult for you whereas for someone else other types of ordeal may provide greater challenges. You may not be tempted by things which someone else can hardly resist, and yet you may have a mighty struggle with things which would be a walkover for that person. In fact, some tests may be exceedingly difficult for one person and be virtually out of the realm of free choice for someone else.
And not only that: some things in your own life may be intensely difficult to overcome while others do not even present a challenge. And exactly which areas are difficult and which are not may be constantly changing. Let us analyze this.
Your battle of free choice takes place only at your point of free choice. In any area of your life which involves moral issues, you have a point at which you are being tested. Below that point, things are so easy that they are not really tests; you would not fail there because you are too powerful. You always succeed there because you handle those things correctly out of habit – in short, they are not tests at all.
Above that point, you are not being tested either: things above your point of free choice are too difficult for you; you do not handle those things correctly because you are too weak. You are not yet ready to grapple with things at those higher levels; you fail there without doing battle. The experiences of those levels are not your tests either.
An extreme example will illustrate this idea: imagine an individual who is morally undeveloped; someone whose life consists of gross violence and physicality. Say, an individual who mugs helpless victims daily and has been doing so ever since he was a youth brought up in desperate circumstances. This criminal has a very low point of free choice – his maximum moral choice may be whether to apply more or less violence the next time he mugs a frail old woman or not.
Now if this individual decides to rob a helpless victim without unnecessary violence, that decision may represent a great elevation in the area of free choice for him. An action which would be the worst kind of failure for a more elevated person may be a great victory for this person!
On the other hand, consider someone who has reached an elevated state of refinement and self-control, say, a Torah scholar who has toiled for years to understand the depths of Torah and develop his personality. Such an individual is grappling with ordeals so refined that the criminal we considered previously would be entirely unable to relate to them. Perhaps this sage is working to control his speech, to ensure that every word he utters is necessary and true. Or perhaps he is laboring to control his thoughts, one of the most difficult areas to master. This individual is battling in areas which our criminal could not begin to understand.
And if this highly developed person fails in one of his tests, slips from his level of greatness in word or thought, he will yet remain far above the greatest achievement of the criminal. Failure at his elevated level may consist of behavior which would be a supreme achievement for the person at the lower level!
This is known as the point of free will. You are always locked in battle with your lower self, but where the battle is pitched depends on your particular situation and the state of your personal growth.
Your point of free will moves as you make choices. As you handle a free will ordeal, you rise or fall. If you win in your battle with your own lower self, if you overcome your temptation and choose the higher path in your ordeal, you immediately become a higher person. As you exert effort to defeat the temptation, as you push through the test successfully, you rise. Just as physical exertion against resistance builds muscle, so spiritual effort builds spiritual power. As you overcome your own immaturity, you develop your inner being. As you conquer tests, you conquer yourself, you take control and you build yourself.
Your growth is in direct proportion to the effort you exert.
If you lose the battle in an ordeal, you fall, you become a lesser person. And if you fail to engage your ordeals, if you give up without a struggle, you become a lesser person. Just as muscles weaken if they are not constantly stressed, your inner being becomes weaker if you are not straining against resistance and winning.
As you conquer ordeals, you must face more difficult ordeals. As you grow, you are given tests which are more difficult. Just as an athlete must face ever stronger opponents as he develops skill in order for the game to remain a challenge, so must you face ever more difficult tests in order for your free will to remain free. If you grew as a result of a test, but the next test remained as easy as the previous one, you would immediately outgrow free choice. When a player outgrows the “little league” it would be pointless (and ridiculous) to continue playing against children. When a club player rises to the level where he can easily defeat all the members of his club, he must go on to play in the national league where he must pit his skill against other champions. There he will find challenge, and there of course, if he exerts himself appropriately, he will develop further. For free choice to remain free, your point of free choice must rise as you rise.
Put another way, your negativity grows along with your positivity. As your positive or spiritual side grows, so does your negative or dark side. Your pull to evil grows in exact proportion to your pull to good. A greater person has more temptation than a lesser person. If free will ordeals must remain real ordeals, real challenges, then the individual who is growing and facing new ordeals must experience a more powerful evil in those ordeals exactly as he must experience a more powerful good.
Adapted from The Thinking Jewish Teenager's Guide to Life by Akiva Tatz, Published by Targum Press