My Name is Asher Lev
The Gift of the Ribbono Shel Olom
In Chaim Potok’s novel My Name is Asher Lev, Asher struggles with self-identity and going against tradition, which ultimately leads him to question whether his gift of art comes from the Ribbono Shel Olom or the sitra achra. Asher’s gift comes from the Ribbono Shel Olom for three main reasons: all gifts come from the Ribbono Shel Olom, conflicts between following tradition and striving for individuality leads to the distortion of the truth, and his gift is the Ribbono Shel Olom’s will. Although one may seem to think that Asher’s gift comes from the sitra achra, the themes of irony and blindness reveal deeper concepts which confirm the fact that Asher’s gift comes from the Ribbono Shel Olom.
In a meeting with Asher regarding his career in art, the Rebbe says, “Certain things are given, and it is for man to bring goodness into the world. The Master of the Universe gives us glimpses, only glimpses. It is for us to open our eyes wide.” Simply put, gifts and talents come from the Ribbono Shel Olom. In addition, it is in our calling to bring forth these gifts and utilize them to bring goodness into the world. This is what Asher is doing; bringing goodness into the world by revealing the truth through his art. Then again, the truth is not pretty and can end up hurting others, but, as a matter of fact, the world is not pretty. Asher is simply painting truth and reality in order to bring peace and balance into the world. Furthermore, when the Rebbe meets with Asher later in his life to discuss him moving out of the community, he says, “I do not hold with those who believe that all painting and sculpture is from the sitra achra. I believe such gifts are from the Master of the Universe. But they have to be used wisely, Asher.” In this quotation, wisely is the key word. As long as Asher is using his gift for good, he is not doing the work of the sitra achra. However, even if he does commit a sin with his gift, it is still not correct to say that his gift originates from the sitra achra; his gift originates from the Ribbono Shel Olom.
The conflict between following tradition and striving for individuality is a major theme throughout the book, and it is shown that it leads to the distortion of the truth that Asher’s gift comes from the Ribbono Shel Olom. The main character who distorts this image is Asher’s father, who says, “Asher, if you had a choice between aesthetic blindness and moral blindness, which would you choose?” It is important to realize that Asher’s father does not, and will not, try to understand Asher’s gift. Because he is fixed upon the belief that art leads to work for the sitra achra, he wants Asher to choose aesthetic blindness because it will make others happy. For this reason, Asher’s father cannot see art superficially, nor does he understand Asher’s motives, which leads him to the misinterpretation that the gift is from the sitra achra. Ultimately, Asher’s view of his own gift is distorted by his father’s blindness and lack of understanding as he emphasizes in the quotation, “It is the Other Side, I told myself. It is the Other Side. But I can’t help it.” Considering the given facts, it is safe to say that because of his father’s blindness, Asher’s gift from the Ribbono Shel Olom is misinterpreted as work of the sitra achra.
The final argument that proves that Asher’s gift comes from the Ribbono Shel Olom is the fact that it is simply His will. For example, Asher’s father tells him, “The Ribbono Shel Olom gave every man a will. Every man is responsible for what he does, because he has a will and by that will he directs his life.” This quotation is almost ironic due to the fact that Asher is doing exactly what his father is telling him with his art, but his father has not accepted it. In other words, his father is trying to have Asher understand the concept that the Ribbono Shel Olom gives every man a will in which he is to direct his life with, but what he does not realize is that the answer is right under his nose: Asher’s will is to pursue art, whether or not it brings happiness, pain, or resentment, that is the whole idea of the novel itself. To emphasize, Asher reads a passage from the book of Deuteronomy which says, “But the thing is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.” This passage is a parallel to Asher’s gift because it illustrates the concept that his gift is for him to take and accept, for it is God’s will to do so, and upon that will, he shall lead his life in order to bring peace and balance into the world.
Given these three points, it can be concluded that Asher’s gift comes from the Ribbono Shel Olom because all gifts originate from the Ribbono Shel Olom regardless of sin, the conflict between following tradition and striving for individuality lead to misinterpretations of the truth, and it is clearly the Ribbono Shel Olom’s will that Asher pursue art to bring balance into the world. Asher’s internal struggle with finding his identity and learning to accept that his art will hurt and confuse others does not deter him from the fact that he must continue his journey of becoming a great artist with gifts given to him from the Ribbono Shel Olom; one who paints the anguish of all the world in order to give balance to the universe and his conscience.