By Joan Lenowitz

The completion and certification of Seven World Trade Center, the building that stands in the place of the tower that was destroyed on 9/11, signals a new era in energy and environmental design. The building achieves preeminence as the first to receive ‘gold’ certification from the U.S. Green Building Council, an industry coalition which grades buildings on such features as energy and water consumption, indoor air quality and use of renewable materials. (New York Times, April 16, 2006)

Scientists, who have studied the effects of the kinds of changes being made in such buildings in the U.S., have concluded that in addition to the potential savings from reduced consumption of energy and raw materials in the construction and operation of the buildings, and the external conservational effects on the environment, there are also categories of expected savings from effects on the humans who occupy those buildings.

They estimate savings from reduced respiratory disease, allergies and asthma (a few billion dollars), reduced losses from ‘sick building syndrome,’ a condition of severe discomfort for the occupants of a building, related to their time spent in the building, but for which no specific illness or cause can be found (tens of billions of dollars). There is also an anticipated savings from direct improvements in worker performance, unrelated to health (a whopping 20’160 billion dollars).

What is striking is that the more difficult-to-define human morale or spirituality benefits significantly outweigh the more directly measurable health benefits. What we cannot see, diagnose, or measure, we are often tempted to ignore. It has taken a long time for our society to develop an awareness of the true indoor environmental effects on humans, and to give them our collective attention.

Our parashah also deals with effects on humans that we have difficulty perceiving or understanding. It begins on a high note, the eighth day of the ordination ceremonies. Moses instructs Aaron concerning the various offerings in atonement for himself and on behalf of the people. The Midrash (Tanhuma) relates the unsurpassed joy of Aaron’s wife, Elisheva, as she basks in the glow of her illustrious husband and sons. Moses announces that the glory of God will appear to the people.

God’s Presence takes the form of a blazing fire, quickly consuming all the offerings; the people fall on their faces with singing and rejoicing. Unfortunately the joy is short lived, especially for Elisheva, as two of her sons are consumed in fire before the Lord; their only fault, the bringing of ‘alien’ fire. The commentators struggle to explain their sin and the severity of their punishment, suggesting overzealousness, presumptuousness, drunkenness, excessive pride, lack of respect for their elders, and other explanations.

After God has ‘consumed’ both His meal and Aaron’s two sons, God tells Moses and Aaron to instruct the people on what they may ‘consume,’ which animals they may eat and which are an abomination or ‘tamei’ contaminated, and may not be eaten.

We struggle, as did the commentators, with the rationale for these laws and the prohibitions of these particular animals. Most commentators have posited a connection between what is consumed by people and their spiritual health. Holiness is thought to derive from the dietary laws, and observance allows God to draw near.

In designing buildings to be environmentally sensitive, we acknowledge the effects that we cannot measure. The largest portion of the benefits gained derives from creating an environment which promotes human productivity in ways that we can empirically induce, but for reasons which are not clearly understood. Natural lighting and materials seem to play a role. Interestingly, from our own parashah we learn that natural raw materials are not susceptible to becoming tamei from contact with other contaminated items. One might think of the unexplained ‘sick building syndrome’ as a modern equivalent of tamei.

The laws of kashrut and purity in this parashah are exacting and the prescribed punishment is severe. However we understand the severity of the punishment of Aaron’s sons, there is the suggestion of the importance of precision in religious activities. Their ‘alien’ fire deviated from that which God commanded and it was unacceptable. We often undervalue precision in the religious domain, though we are grateful for it in aeronautics. A few defective O-rings bringing the Challenger mission to an explosive halt made us stand up and take notice. In non-scientific endeavors we worry less, and we are less attentive to the consequences.

Precise laws are important for the endurance of any society. But this does not mean that laws are immutable or without exceptions. We are most effective as a society and a community when we live by our laws, and, when appropriate, reinterpret them’conscientiously and precisely’rather than tacitly allowing them to be modified in the breach.