Our teacher, Mana-san, introduced us to もったいない mottainai which currently is transmigrating from Japanese, to English and other foreign languages. While metoposcopy is an effective mystical tool to read the migrations of the soul, Google may be its modern equivalent in the migration of words. While most entries of Mottainai are in Japanese, there are a growing number in English and other languages. It is possible, however, to detect that the transference process for mottainai, is incomplete, as my spell checker does not recognize it.
Translation is always an imperfect art, often simplifying or sticking with the denotation, while missing the deeper connotation of a word. Mottainai can be translated as waste, but in truth in Japanese it means so much more. More than waste, mottainai implies a sense of regret that an object, which still has use, is being discarded. This regret stems from the inherent divinity found within every object.
This understanding of mottainai was reflected in an epigram used during meals by Mana-san’s grandmother. If the children did not finish their rice, she admonished them say that “there were seven gods [perhaps the seven lucky gods] in each grain of rice.” I have no doubt that this witticism engendered sufficient piety – or is it guilt – to encourage the young children to finish all their rice.
Among older Japanese the sense of mottainai is very strong. Thus, it was traditional not to waste old Yukata (the light summer weight kimono), but instead to use the cloth for diapers and dust rags. It was also considered mottainai not to repair an object that could be fixed and reused. Today, a sense of mottainai is used in regards to the environment. Wonton destruction of the world around us is seen as mottainai in the deepest sense of the word. It was in this sense that Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai (former Kenyan Minister of the Environment), introduced mottainai into English usage, calling on the world to have a deep respect and care for the world in which we all live. (For those interested in the Mottainai movement I suggest you check out their website, http://mottainai.info/english/).
Mottainai creates an ontology of respect and humility as we realize humanity is not at the centre of the universe, and that it does not exist just for our sake. It teaches us that everything around us is imbued with divinity. This same teaching is at the centre of the Hassidic mystical worldview.
The Ba’al Shem Tov asks us to open our eyes, because everywhere we look we would see that bushes were burning, but not being consumed. He is reminding us that we often walk through the world and we only see materiality – which we have the hubris to think we can control, and that we own. Yet, with a mystical eye, we have the opportunity to see God’s presence and being within everything.
To a mystic God’s all encompassing presence is set forth in the Torah, “Know this day and set it upon your heart that the Eternal is Lord…there is none else. The Hasid reads the last two words, as “there is nothing else.” Everything is God, though we don’t always see it.
Yet, for the Hasid there is a definite level of valuation between the knowable and the unknowable. The material world of gashmiut, or corporeality, is considered a mask that can impede us from seeing the unknowable unity of ruchniut, or spirit. Despite this, however, since the divine is in everything even in materiality, we can serve in every aspect of our lives. Just like sacred activities, all mundane activities – everything we do – awaits and invites elevation, achieved through the realization that the divine is hidden within it. Eating, drinking, singing, dancing and even sexual intercourse all can be, and should be, holy activities. The Hasidic does not require a withdrawal from the world or from other people, but rather it demands that we seek to make everyday and every moment an opportunity of elevation.
I move even further away from the negative valuation of this world. I see the process of emanation not as the creation of a materiality that masks or prevents the true essence, which is God; instead, I envision a process of revelation where the divine is made known in the world. The divine is perceived, not only as the underlying essence, which expresses unity, but also in the truth of the world’s materiality and diversity and our interconnectivity to it – that is to say through the beauty of many different flowers and plants or the comfort of a hug. The rabbis speak of this diversity in the midrashic analysis of creation. The text points to the difference between the divine and a human king. When a king mints coins with his image, the image on each coin is identical, but when the divine mints human beings, all in the divine image, each male and female is unique. Our diversity, and indeed all diversity is a revelation of the divine. It is not, however, just humanity that is in image of God, rather it is the entire diversity of creation.
The spirit of mottainai and the Jewish mystical tradition demand that we recognize the divinity that surrounds us. They demand that we act as faithful stewards to preserve, and not destroy, the world in which we live.