The Uncluttered Mind, The Unfettered Soul


“What makes the bed of a Torah scholar? Nothing is found under it except sandals in the summer and shoes in the rainy season…By contrast, the bed of an unlearned person looks like a storeroom packed with odds and ends.” –Bava Batra 57b

Many of us deal with clutter in our homes—from yard-sale knick-knacks to unpacked boxes to Aunt Fay’s old, unused china in the attic. Some believe that clutter is the sign of a disorganized life; others celebrate clutter as part of what Rabbi Irwin Kula has called (in a different context) “the sacred messiness of life.” My wife and I are constantly struggling to reduce clutter in our house—though I confess, she is more ardent in this pursuit than I. My study, for example, is cluttered with pens, hi-liters, overflowing bookshelves, manila folders, and a thousand CDs I rarely play anymore. As for what’s beneath our bed: that, at least, is relatively free of clutter, except for a few shoe boxes.

The quotation above appears in a section of the Talmud called Bava Batra, which means “The Last Gate”. This tractate (book) deals primarily with our rights and responsibilities as property owners. However, as in most of the Talmud, the Rabbis manage to take a number of interesting side paths and tangents. Of course, on one level, the “stuff” one keeps beneath one’s bed is related to “property” and how we manage it—we might consider clutter to be a kind of overflowing or “metastasis” of our domestic property.

In the rabbinical and mystical tradition, there are four “levels” on which one can read a religious (usually, Biblical) text. Pshat is the “simple” or ordinary, intended meaning; remez is the meaning “alluded to” or hinted at; drash is the “interpretive” meaning; and finally, sod is the mystical or esoteric meaning [see].

I don’t have solid scriptural evidence to back me up, but I read the teaching about a scholar’s bed on a metaphorical-mystical level—maybe somewhere between drash and sod. I believe the Torah scholar’s “bed” is a kind of symbolic stand-in for the scholar’s mind or soul. The “odds and ends” beneath the unlearned person’s bed are the distractions and material attachments that take us away from what really matters in life. If I am on the right track, the teaching may be about uncluttering our minds with things that take us away from our spiritual paths. It may be about our letting go of unneeded “objects” and retaining in our minds and souls only the necessities of life. “Sandals in summer, shoes in rainy season” may be seen as examples of—and metaphors for– such “minimum mental baggage”.

A similar sentiment is wonderfully expressed in a Zen Buddhist teaching, found on a Japanese scroll []:

There is really nothing you must be.

And there is nothing you must do.

There is really nothing you must have.

And there is nothing you must know.

There is really nothing you must become.

However, it helps to understand that fire burns,

and when it rains, the earth gets wet.

It is intriguing that the Zen teaching picks up the same dyad of “fire and rain” that the Rabbis allude to in their summer season/rainy season distinction. Perhaps these may be understood as those primal forces of nature that are, respectively, destructive and regenerative. Keeping in mind what really matters in life means keeping such life-and-death issues foremost in mind.

In similar fashion, we can remove a lot of “clutter” from our spiritual paths by cleaving to the essence of spirituality—in whatever faith we embrace. The most renowned example of such “uncluttering” in the Talmud is the terse and brilliant response by the sage Hillel (1st century BCE) when asked by a “heathen” to summarize the Torah while standing on one foot

( Hillel famously replied: “What is hateful to you, do not do unto your neighbor. This is the whole Torah. All the rest is commentary. Now go and study.”

Now, that’s a scholar who did not have a lot of clutter under his bed! We may rightly assume that Hillel’s mind was equally uncluttered– and that his soul was free to serve the higher purpose of a godly life.

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