by Rabbi E. E. Dessler
[Before the advent of modern warfare], when two armies are locked in battle, fighting takes place only at the battlefront. Territory behind the lines of one army is under that army's control and little or no resistance need be expected there. A similar situation prevails in respect of territory behind the lines of the other army. If one side gains a victory at the front and pushes the enemy back, the position of the battlefront will have changed. In fact, therefore, fighting takes place only at one location, though potentially the line could be drawn anywhere in the territories of the two contending countries.
THE MORAL BATTLEFRONT
The situation is very similar with regard to free choice. Everyone has free choice -- at the point where truth meets falsehood. In other words, free choice takes place at that point where the truth as the person sees it confronts the illusion produced in him by the power of falsehood.
But the majority of a person's actions are undertaken without any clash between truth and falsehood taking place. Many of a person's actions may happen to coincide with what is objectively right because he has been brought up that way and it does not occur to him to do otherwise, and many bad and false decisions may be taken simply because the person does not realize that they are bad. In such cases, no valid choice has been made. Free will is exercised and a valid choice is made only on the borderline between the forces of good and the forces of evil within that person.
It must be realized that this "point of free choice" does not remain static in any given individual. With each good choice successfully carried out, the person rises higher in spiritual level; that is, things that were previously in the line of battle are now in the area controlled by the positive inclination, and actions done in that area can be undertaken without struggle and without choice. In this sense we can understand the saying that "one mitzvah leads to another." (Avot 4:2)
And so in the other direction. Giving in to the negative inclination pushes back the frontier of the good, and an act which previously cost one a struggle with one's conscience will now be done without free will at all. The positive inclination is no longer functioning effectively in that area. And so we have learnt "One sin leads to another," (Avot 4:2) and "as soon as one has committed a sin twice, it is no longer a sin for him." (Talmud, Yoma 86b)
ENVIRONMENT AND FREE WILL
As we have said, education plays a large part in determining one's "point of free choice." A person may have been brought up to do many good actions as a matter of course. All this means that his "point of free choice" is at a high level. For example, one may have been brought up in an environment of Torah, among people who devote themselves to good deeds. In this case his "point of free choice" will not be whether or not to commit an actual sin, but whether to do a commandment with more or less devotion.
Another may be brought up among evildoers of the lowest grade, among thieves and robbers. For him, whether or not to steal does not present any choice at all; his "point of free choice" might be on the question of shooting his way out when discovered. For him this may be the crucial choice; this is where for him the forces of good and evil, truth and untruth, are evenly balanced. It may well be that murder is something that he knows in his heart of hearts to be wrong; this is the truth as revealed to him by his "point of free choice," and it is this truth that he is tempted to deny or distort.
So we see that education and environment cannot in any way change the essential act of free choice, but only the location at which it takes place -- the position of the point of free choice on the moral scale. Every human being possesses the power of perceiving the truth available to him at his particular level, clinging to it, and refusing to be deflected from it by the seductive illusions of falsehood. In this there is no difference at all whether his upbringing raised or lowered his "point of free choice." The ability to adopt the truth as he knows it is equal in all situations.
To sum up everyone has free choice at his "point of free choice," but the position of the "point of free choice" itself is determined by various factors. This may be affected by his own previous choices, which may have raised or lowered his "point of free choice." Or it may be affected by factors outside his control. Divine Providence may have placed him from childhood in a certain environment, higher or lower as the case may be.
There is thus no free choice except at the "point of free choice," and this point is fixed by antecedent factors. But there are no outside factors which can affect the act of choice itself. Here the human being himself reigns supreme.
If we are prepared to read a little more deeply than usual, we can see this idea clearly expressed in the Torah, in the passage dealing with human choice:
"I have put before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; choose life, so that you may live..." (Deuteronomy 30:19)
"Life and death" comprise all that a person is "given" -- all the facets of a person's character, his inborn traits and tendencies, his upbringing and environment; all those factors which determine what he calls "life," what presents itself to him as "good" and "true"; and equally what he calls "death," "evil" and "falsehood." All these things "I have put before you," literally: "I have given before you"; these are the "given" of the human situation; they exist independently of any action on our part, like all the other features of our environment.
But -- "you shall choose life." "Choosing life," choosing truth and reality, is something which only the human being himself can do, and which he does without being affected by any outside factor whatsoever.
THE FEAR OF HEAVEN
This is also the meaning of that famous saying (Talmud - Berachot 33b): "All is from Heaven, except the fear of Heaven."
"All is from Heaven" -- all that befalls a person, everything that determines where his choice shall take place, the level of his choice as well as the kind of test to which he will be submitted -- all this is from Heaven. The only thing in man's hands is "the fear of Heaven," which is the sense of responsibility to the truth which he can either adopt or reject as he wills. The fear of God -- whether the fear of material consequences, or fear and awe on higher levels -- is essential to prevent one being deflected from the truth. This is the essence of free choice.
Reprinted with permission from InnerNet.org and "Strive for Truth." Published by Feldheim