Friday, November 25, 2005

Can A Gift Become A Curse?

Posted 11/23/2005
By Tamar Snyder

I always have dozens of books piled up next to my desk, waiting to be read. The pile dwindles at times, but often becomes so big that I need to divide it into two. But for an avid reader like myself, there is something comforting about this precariously piled stack of books. The literary offer endless adventure, wisdom and fantasy — from NY Times best sellers. Jewish-themed novels to books about the stock market, journalism and Israel.

Recently, I (carefully) unearthed Chaim Potok`s My Name is Asher Lev from the bottom of the tower of books. A friend had recommended it; “It`s my favorite book,” she told me. Since I liked The Chosen and appreciate art, I figured that I would enjoy reading about Asher Lev, a deep-thinking hassidic boy blessed with an aptitude for art.

But the book wasn`t as enjoyable as I imagined it would be.

Don`t get me wrong; My Name is Asher Lev was certainly well written. And it managed to keep me up late at night, thinking. (Two important qualities every good book should posses). But I found Potok`s characterization of Asher Lev to be dark, disturbing and depressing. Realistic, maybe — but harrowing all the same.

If you haven`t read My Name is Asher Lev, or can`t quite recall the story-line, I`ll give you the Cliff Notes version. Lev, whose uncle prophetically calls him “a little Chagall,” is blessed with the ability to paint pictures and view the world with an artist`s eye. But this gift becomes Lev`s curse. His schoolmates alienate him. His own father, a devoted follower of the Rebbe, berates his son for wasting time drawing such “foolishness.” Lev struggles as he tries to fulfill two conflicting destinies: a faithful follower of the Rebbe and a gifted artist.

One can sympathize with Reb Aryeh Lev, the father of a starry-eyed, talented son whose head is in the clouds — and not in Torah learning, or perpetuating the ideals of the Rebbe.
But all feelings of empathy soon shift in Asher Lev`s favor.

“Asher, you have a gift,” the father tells his 10-year-old son. “I do not know if it is a gift from the Ribbono Shel Olam or from the Other Side. If it is from the Other Side, then it is foolishness, dangerous foolishness, for it will take you away from Torah and from your people and lead you to think only of yourself.”

Asher Lev is beside himself after listening to such guilt-laden criticism. “If You don`t want me to use the gift, why did You give it to me?” he asks G-d, and himself.

A good question, no doubt. While I am not a psychologist, an educator or an expert on the Sitra Achra (the devilish “Other Side”), I can see how negating a student or child`s innate talents can only wreak havoc on the person`s self-esteem, and inhibit growth.

Thankfully, I was brought up otherwise. Talents are a gift from Hashem, I was always told. In fact, each person has a responsibility to cultivate his or her skills and channel them in service of G-d and improving the community.

High-school productions were the best illustration of this belief put into action, at least on a small scale. Everyone pitched in. Those who could sew made the costumes. The artistic ones painted scenery and gathered props. Those blessed with computer savvy created the playbill. Math gurus collected the money. Singers sang and dancers danced. And the put-together few who could lead others and keep everyone in step, would direct. (Admittedly, I was usually busy with newspaper or yearbook, but the concept of contributing one`s talents still holds true).

Some schoolmates became the stars of the show. Others played vital roles behind the scenes. But in order to put on a wonderful production, each person needed to utilize the unique set of talents bestowed upon her by the Almighty.

But not everyone participated.

Throughout my years of schooling, I noticed that there was always a group of students who chose not to get involved. “We have no real talent,” they would say. “There are plenty of people who are better than us at art/dance/singing, so why even bother,” some would rationalize to themselves. Others would complain about the hard work. “I just don`t have the time,” they were quick to say.

Now that is foolishness. To refuse to discover one`s innate talents is akin to throwing these gifts back in G-d`s face. And it only gets worse with time. Those who never get involved while at school are likely to stay that way. They won`t join any clubs at college. They`ll shy away from volunteering to help the PTA. Worse, they`ll never experience that burst of exhilaration one experiences after achieving a meaningful goal and venturing beyond the comfort zone.

A love of painting isn`t rooted in the Sitra Achra — at least not in my book. But refusing to discover and utilize one`s talents just might be. Living an uninvolved life is the ultimate in “dangerous foolishness.”

Tamar Snyder is an English and Communications major at Lander College for Women. If you would like to comment on the above article, you can e-mail Tamar at
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