Our Gemara on Amud Beis discussed the directive that one should always turn toward the right side. This is a pervasive value statement which comes up in numerous halachos. The right side is treated as more important.
Pele Yoetz under the entry for “Yamin” lists several halakhic procedures that should be done right side first. The right shoe should be placed on first, and the right side of a garment should be put on first, especially Erev Shabbos. Or, the right hand should pick up the washing cup, then place it in the left hand, then have the left hand pour water on the right hand, making the left subservient to the right. He hints at mystical reasons, although he does not specify other than to say that it is an ancient tradition. Another example, Mishna Berura (651:12) specifies that the hadassim must be on the right of the Lulav, and the entire group of three, Lulav, Hadassim and Aravim, since they are the majority, also are held in the right hand (ibid 15).
Let’s discuss this concept. The general idea seems to be that the left side represents, “the other side” “sitera achara”, a zoharitic term for the forces of evil and corruption that are part of this world. These various rituals represent ways to enact victory of good forces over evil forces.
There is a dispute amongst Jewish philosophers as to whether evil exists as a personified entity. That is, is evil merely the absence of G-d’s presence that is necessary in order for the physical world to exist or does it actually represent a special category of divine agents who carry out, and allow for evil. The reason being, that G-d needs evil to exist so that people can choose to do good. In other words, without evil there is no good. A world filled with total light will be as dark as a world filled with total darkness, because there would be no way to see anything without contrasting dark and light.
An example of this basic argument can be seen in Ramban (VaYikra 16:8) where he elaborates on a matter that Ibn Ezra hinted at, the purpose of the Azazael scapegoat. While Ramban is careful to say it is not a sacrifice to the devil per se, as that would be idolatry, it is a command by G-d to offer this scapegoat to enable the evil forces to speak positively about the Jewish people. The rationalist philosophers see evil as not a true entity but rather a metaphor for the de facto entropic forces that manifest in places where G-d’s presence is withdrawn. On this side, we find Rav Saadiah Gaon taking the other extreme. In the beginning of Iyov, Satan challenges G-d’s statement praising Iyov for his piety, suggesting that Iyov is only pious because of his good fortune and health. Rav Saadiah cannot abide with the idea that G-d could actually create evil. In his introduction to his commentary on the Book of Job, Rav Saadiah declares Satan as a metaphor, standing in for those peers and countrymen who doubted and complained about Job’s sincerity and piety. To Rav Saadiah there is no red guy with horns and a pitchfork.
In any case, we see two different ideas about the personification of evil forces in the world. Real or metaphor. In truth this dispute can also be seen as machlokes Tanaim. Gemara Sanhedrin (90a) records a dispute between Rabbi Yosi and Rabbi Akiva about the authenticity of the evil powers in the world. Specifically if an idolatrous prophet who works a miracle is doing so via trickery or actually has tapped into malign dark forces:
It is taught in a baraita that Rabbi Yosei HaGelili says: The Torah ascertained the depth of the mentality of idol worship, the danger that it presents, and the lure of its ideology. Therefore, the Torah ascribed the false prophet with dominion in its regard, recognizing that a false prophet could perform wonders on the basis of idol worship. Therefore, even if the false prophet stops the Sun for you in the middle of the sky, do not heed him. It is taught in a baraita that Rabbi Akiva says: Heaven forfend that the Holy One, Blessed be He, would stop the Sun for those who violate His will. A false prophet could never perform an actual miracle. Rather, this warning is relevant only in the case of a prophet, for example, Hananiah, son of Azzur, whose origin was as a true prophet, at which point he could perform miracles; and ultimately, he was a false prophet. Therefore, although he had already been established as a true prophet, once he espouses idol worship, it is clear that he is a false prophet.
After all is said and done, we cannot stop being human and need stories and myths to tell us how to make sense of the world. Even in modern times, when people do not usually believe in demons and such we create our own mythologies. We no longer can tell ourselves the source of our compulsions and addictions are the result of demonic possession, so instead we label the sources of our problems in living as diseases, chemical imbalances, our mothers hating us, and many other internal narratives. I am not diminishing this idea. Our difficulties in life and internal pains do indeed come from somewhere. I am rather pointing out how important it is to recognize that, as humans, we need a narrative. We need to be heroes in an epic story in order to give our lives context, focus and meaning. If we are fighting true demons or psychological demons, it is real.
This is why, regardless of whether you believe in the tangible reality of evil or the metaphor of evil, the internal reality is the same. We ever presently feel that there is a darkside to the world, and we oftentimes fear we will become victim to it or join forces with it. This is what the Sages wanted us to be attuned toward. In these oft repeated daily rituals there is opportunity for mindfulness and growth to transcend the evil potential that surrounds us if we are to be honest with ourselves.
Translations Courtesy of Sefaria