As we discussed last week, the essence of a person is made up of three facets: pleasure, willpower (ratzon) and the ability to choose (bechira). While the first two facets can be found even in toddlers, bechira requires decisiveness which necessitates a level of intellectual capacity that cannot be found in young children. The decision of how to act made by a child who craves a candy but knows that he will be punished for taking one without permission, does not constitute an example of his exercising his bechira. The accurate interpretation of this situation is that the child has two conflicting desires (to eat candy and avoid being punished) and thus the outcome will be decided by whichever desire is more intense. One instinct prevailing over another instinct cannot be called bechira.
In contrast, adults have the capacity required to arrive at intellectually sound decisions. Nevertheless, in actuality even adults exercise their bechira quite infrequently. Most of our decisions are an outcome of our nature, upbringing, habits and desires. It is possible that a person can live his entire life without ever having to use the trait of bechira! A person who grew up in a religious atmosphere and performs the mitzvos by rote, has a calm disposition and was not beset by trials or tribulations, might very well fit the bill of one who possibly never used his bechira. It's an extreme scenario, but it demonstrates the reality that bechira is not as commonplace as we might have thought.
So when do we use our bechira? We can glean the answer from Rabbeinu Yonah. He writes (Sha'arei Teshuva 3:17), "You should know that the greatest attributes were bequeathed to us via positive commandments. Examples of these attributes include the attribute of bechira as it says 'And you shall choose life', and the attribute of learning Torah... the attribute of following in Hashem's ways... the attribute of contemplating His greatness... the attribute of remembering and contemplating His kindnesses... the attribute of holiness... the attribute of avodah... the attribute of fear [of Hashem]... the attribute of love [of Hashem]... these attributes all have many different levels."
The placement of bechira amongst the loftiest spiritual levels indicates that it most probably is not part of our everyday routine. Just as we understand that attaining love and fear of Hashem requires a serious investment of time and effort, we can be sure that bechira is no different. Consequently, in general we should relate to others and even ourselves as if we are forced (by way of our nature, upbringing etc.) to act the way that we do. Additionally, we should never put ourselves into a difficult situation and rely on our bechira, because even Shlomo HaMelech, the wisest of all men, failed when he relied on his bechira (see Sanhedrin 21a).
Nevertheless, we are commanded to choose life by exercising our bechira. It is clear that if we are obligated in this area then we absolutely can and must acquire this attribute. Moreover, as Rabbeinu Yonah writes, each of the attributes mentioned have numerous levels. When a person chooses to perform a mitzvah because of the honor that it will bring him, he has also exercised his bechira to a certain extent. He chose to be honored through the performance of a mitzvah as opposed to looking for honor in non-spiritual pastures. The highest level of bechira is performing the mitzvos simply because that is what Hashem commanded.
The turning point in one's spiritual life can be defined when a spiritual pleasure competes with physical pleasures from a bechira standpoint. When one feels that spirituality also offers pleasure, and appreciates this pleasure in contrast to a physical pleasure, he has altered his very essence. His bechira now takes into account the knowledge that, "A person was created for the sole purpose of having pleasure with Hashem by basking in the radiance of His Shechina, for this is the truest pleasure and greatest bliss that can be found!" (Mesilas Yesharim chap. 1). To choose or not to choose, that is the question.