The Choice Point is a fundamental element of Mussar practice. It is the moment when we are balanced between doing the right or the wrong thing. When we are awake, we see the choices in front of us, and are better positioned to exercise our free will. This excerpt, from my book “The Spiritual Practice of Good Actions,” explains the importance of Understanding Mussar Choice Points.
Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler one of the foremost Mussar masters of the early 20th century, describes the struggle between the Good and Evil Inclinations as a battlefront. Behind the front lines, our actions are firmly entrenched such that we act without thinking to follow either the Good or Evil Inclination. When we are at the boundary, however, we are faced with a choice, and feel the pull towards both positive and negative behaviors. Rabbi Dessler called this a choice point. For example, stopping at a red light under ordinary circumstances is in the category of an automatic behavior in the area of the Good Inclination. However, if we are running late, we may be tempted to race through the intersection while the light is changing. Choice points are critical, since that is where we have an opportunity to exercise free will, and decide which way to go. We might make a decision to do right by our Soul, or to follow the Evil Inclination. It is only a choice point if the decision could go either way.
This picture of the confluence of the Rhone and Arve rivers illustrates the metaphor of the battle between the Good and Evil Inclinations. Imagine that you on a boat traveling towards the confluence of the clear and muddy rivers. In some parts of our life, we generally do the right thing and thus are sailing through the clear waters on the left side. In other areas, however, our weakness hold sway, and we are in the habit of following our base instincts in the cloudy water. In the middle, there is a grey area, where our spiritual challenges lie. The boundary is jagged, uneven, and in constant flux. There are places where the good juts out a bit or the Evil Inclination is starting to permeate under the Good Inclination. Each action we take influences our Soul, making it more likely that we will make a similar decision in the future. Thus when we follow the Good Inclination, the boundary is pushed to the right. When we follow the Evil Inclination, the boundary is pushed to the left. Dessler supports this conclusion by citing Ethics of the Fathers, which says “One sin leads to another,” and the Talmud, which teaches, “as soon as one has committed a sin twice, it is no longer a sin for him.” In America, we call this phenomenon the slippery slope.
Rabbi Dessler teaches us that our choice points are a product of our education, environment, and state of spiritual development. Two people with different spiritual curriculums will face very different choice points day to day. For example, lets compare the choice points between two men, one righteous, and the other a thief. For the thief, the choice point is whether to take the television but leave behind the Blu-Ray player. For him, that would represent a great step forward since he did not commit as big a crime as he usually did. The challenge for the righteous person is to give to charity with a feeling of Loving-Kindness instead of out of obligation.
We all have issues. Mussar concerns the point of choice, that moment of conflict when we have to choose between being patient, or yelling at the kids to hurry up and get out the door. Choice? When I start yelling it doesn’t feel like a choice, it just comes out. While this is true, amazingly enough, two weeks after I began to focus on the Soul Trait Patience I experienced a dramatic change in my typical behavior. My kids were slow getting out the door in the morning, and I opened my mouth to yell at them. In that moment, I recognized them as little divine Souls, just playing around and not giving a fig about getting to the car. I closed my mouth and smiled.
In that moment, I chose to sail in clear waters.
Image credit: La Jonction used with permission from S. Brandt.
 Rabbi E. E. Dessler, Strive for Truth, reprinted on Torah.org, accessed August 7, 2015, http://www.torah.org/features/spirfocus/FreeChoice-point2.html.
 Go to http://americanmussar.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Figure-4.1-Mussar.jpg to look at this picture in more detail.
Avot 4:2 and Talmud, Yoma 86b.
 Rabbi Eliyahu E. Dessler, Strive for Truth!, trans. Aryeh Carmell (Jerusalem: Feldheim, 1978), 54-55.
 Derived from an example from Rabbi E.E. Dessler shared by Morinis in Everyday Holiness, 23.