Posted by: R Jonathan Gewirtz | May 22, 2016

Allergic Reactions

If you are what you eat, my daughter is probably about 79% peanut butter.  From the time she was two until the time she was four, she ate more peanut butter than was ever served at the Tuskegee Institute.  I can’t tell you how many times her Shabbos seudah consisted of peanut butter on challah. The point is that even when we paid for school lunch, she just wanted a peanut butter sandwich.

So, this year, we decided we would not do school lunch. But then it happened.  There was a rumor that the school would become peanut-free.  It turns out that several children had peanut allergies, and one so severe that someone eating peanut butter anywhere in the room could cause a severe reaction.

Upset stomach, scratchy throat, inability to breathe, and steam from the ears.  These were all symptoms I exhibited thinking that someone would have the nerve to separate my child from the one food that she loved, not to mention make MY life much more difficult trying to figure out what to feed her.  Get me an epi-pen – something’s getting stabbed!

But then my wife stepped in with the voice of reason.  We weren’t just talking about the inconvenience to our child or us; we were talking about the health and safety of another human being!  If a child were to chas v’shalom get sick or worse because I had to be stubborn about my peanut butter sandwiches I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.

As I let that reality sink in, I knew that I couldn’t put my own selfish wants ahead of the life of a child.  And what about the parents who worried constantly about their little boy or girl, deathly afraid that some inconsiderate or thoughtless person would do irreparable harm to their baby?

Long story short, my daughter now eats other foods and she is still alive and healthy, B”H.

Now, how can we take a lesson from this and apply it to our everyday lives?  I would say that we could realize that what we do and find innocuous can have a devastating effect on others physically, emotionally and spiritually.  As Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously wrote, “The right to swing your fist ends at the tip of the other man’s nose.”

For example, Lashon Hara.  If we’re speaking Lashon Hara and someone asks us to change the subject, we’re likely to respond, “So don’t listen!”  Would we tell the allergic boy or girl, “So don’t breathe”?

Speakers and listeners of Lashon Hara and rechilus can violate up to 17 negative transgressions, 14 positive transgressions, and receive up to 4 curses (multiplied by countless offenses!), not to mention that habitual Lashon Hara will lead participants to lose their shares in the World to Come.  Even if we’re not concerned about ourselves (and we should be) what about the innocent bystanders, trying not to listen, who are being harmed by “second-hand spoke?”

The same goes for vulgar and coarse speech.  How many people have heard their children use an expletive and were shocked, only to realize the child learned it from them?

Another example is talking in shul.  Chazal is full of references to the harm and destructive forces of talking in shul, yet we continue to do it.  Aren’t we concerned about the other people we might hurt?

There is a famous story about a fire that destroyed the Bais HaMedrash in New Square.  The Rebbe’s room, a wood-lined study attached to the destroyed building, was not even scorched.  When asked why this was, the Rebbe is reported to have replied, “I don’t know, but I can tell you that in my room we never spoke during davening.”  Today, the Bais HaMedrash is rebuilt, and all tefilos are shmooze-free.

There’s one more area I want to mention.  Tznius.  I know; many of you will want to put the magazine down right now, but please, keep reading.  Tznius, modesty, refers to things like our behavior and our speech, such as off-color jokes and to whom they’re made, but what most of us think of when we hear the term, is tznius in our dress.  And, lest you think tznius is a “women’s issue,” men have been known to walk into public places after a gym workout or basketball game wearing a T-shirt and shorts too.  INAPPROPRIATE!!  Tznius applies to all of us, in lots of ways.

I know many people who are offended by signs reminding them to dress in a certain manner in a certain place.  This includes people to whom the sign doesn’t even apply because of their gender or because their dress already complies.  But let’s try to understand the motivation behind the sign.

If your child came home from school with a note that said, “One of our students was rushed to the hospital today because s/he is extremely allergic to peanuts and another child playfully smeared peanut butter on his/her nose. Please speak to your children about this and refrain from sending in peanut butter,” would you be offended?  Of course not. You don’t expect to exercise your rights to the detriment of others.

Now, if the note said, “One of our teachers went home and while speaking to his/her spouse today was actually thinking about someone else,” would you wonder if it was you?  Would you consider that maybe your clothing objectified you or made you too memorable and caused harm to another marriage?  Is that something you want to have happen?

If the note continued and said, “To prevent reoccurrences in the future, and ensure Shalom Bayis, we ask that visitors to our school (store, office, etc.) follow these guidelines…” would you get upset and declare that your right to dress as you wish is more important than preventing fights, divorces and the irreversible harm they can to cause to other adults and children?

It’s bad enough when people dress inappropriately at the gym for others to see, [see Observant Jew #61 – Black and White isn’t a Cookie] but in places where people expect to see others fully dressed, should they be subjected to an eyeful?

Now, while you may find that the way you dress is fine for you, and you don’t feel that you are affected by seeing people in revealing outfits, remember that these things can have a serious effect on other people who are more sensitive to them or even less accustomed to them.  Just because it has no negative effects on my daughter, is it right to send her to school with a peanut butter sandwich, knowing that her classmate will suffer?

If you’re feeling a little uncomfortable after reading any or all of my examples, I understand completely.  There is a feeling of rage – “How dare you tell me how to live my life?!”  But listen for that voice of reason (you can call my wife if you need to) and remember that it’s simply not worth living as you like if it prevents someone else from living at all.

Copyright 2007


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