There is a Hebrew root word that binds together the first thirteen chapters of the book of Breishit (Genesis), serving to highlight both the descent of man away from the source of spirituality in the world as well as the significance of Abraham as rectifier of this free fall.
This root word is “kedem” (as well as the variation of this word, “mi’kedem”), which can be translated as a reference to something that is “East”.
Use of “kedem” in the Book of Genesis
The word kedem first appears in the Bible at the outset of the description of the Garden of Eden. In fact, the term “Garden of Eden” is somewhat misleading. The verse states that God planted a “gan b’eden mi’kedem” (a “garden in Eden to the east”) (Genesis 2:8). Thus, the habitat of man is not Eden itself, but an area to the “east” – which can be understood either as “east of Eden” (and therefore completely separate from it) or “in the eastern part of Eden”.
Either way, the garden does not represent “Eden” itself. “Eden” is rather the source of spirituality in our world; man can approach it but can never be in it entirely.
After Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge, they are exiled from this garden. According to the verse, the cherubs and the rotating flaming sword were placed by God “mi’kedem l’gan eden” (“to the East of the Garden of Eden”) (Genesis 3:24). This was done to prevent man from re-accessing the garden, thereby relegating him to an area “east” of the garden, which is one more step “east” of “Eden”.
Similarly, after Cain kills his brother Abel and receives his punishment from God, it is stated that Cain sojourned in the land of Nod, which was “kidmat Eden” (“East of Eden”) (Genesis 4:16). As mankind had already been banished to the east of Eden as a result of Adam and Eve’s sin, Cain’s new predicament must be understood as one in which he is forced to wander in an area even further removed from “Eden”.
Finally, the people of the Generation of the Dispersion travelled “mi’kedem“ (“from the East”) before settling down to build the infamous Tower of Babel. Many commentators struggle with the use of the word mi’kedem in this instance, because it is unclear where the people are travelling from and what possible relevance can be found in the fact that they travelled from the nameless east. In my opinion, the reference to the “east” in this context is to “the area east of Eden that Cain had travelled to” (as explained above).
However, the commentary of the renowned Biblical commentator, Rashi, in this week’s parsha implies that the word mi’kedem may not even relate to the physical world at all. Rather, the word should be understood as a code word of sorts for something that distanced from God and spirituality. When Lot takes his leave of Abraham, the verse states that he traveled “m’ikedem” (“from the East”) (Genesis 13:11). Yet, the trek taken by Lot from Beit-El, where Abraham was stationed, to the plains of the Jordan River (where Sodom and Gemorroh were located), should have been towards the east, not from the east. Because of this difficulty, Rashi posits a second interpretation of the word mi’kedem: “He [Lot] distanced himself from the Ancient One (mi’kadmono) of the world. He said, “I care neither for Abram nor for his God.”
According to this interpretation, the movement “to the East” by mankind throughout the first part of the Book of Genesis is not to be understood literally. “Mi’kedem” simply means – away from God, or, as explained above, away from “Eden”.
The human condition
An important question thus arises: What is special about the above stories (eating from the Tree of Knowledge, the killing of Abel and the building of the Tower of Babel) in that they are singled out to reflect man’s fall away from “Eden”?
The answer may be that each of these stories are meant to be a reflection of the three dimensions of man in the world (man vs. himself, man vs. man, man vs. God) and the challenges that man must overcome in order to get as close as possible to “Eden”.
The consequence of Adam and Eve’s eating from the Tree of Knowledge has been labeled many things throughout the ages, including “reason”, “self-consciousness” and “samsara”. The various interpretations all seem to point to the fact that a fundamental barrier to experiencing the totality of Being (i.e. “Eden”) was injected into man as a result of his sin. Consequently, the banishment “to the East” of the garden is a metaphor for the division within man caused by the introduction of “knowledge of good and evil” into his makeup.
The story of Cain’s murder of Abel (including the reasons for the murder) depicts a basic flaw in man’s relationship with his fellow men, successfully summarized by the words of Kohelet – “I saw that all labor and every kind of skilled work is the result of a man’s rivalry with his neighbor; this too is vanity and a striving after wind.” (Ecclesiastes 4:4). Indeed, to shape our ambitions in terms of something other than the achievement of our fellow men is a necessary step before we can approach “Eden”.
Finally, the people of the Generation of the Dispersion strove to make a name for themselves, to the exclusion of the all-powerful Being at the root of the universe. When we set up a construct between ourselves and God, this will be an obstacle on our path to “Eden”.
Avraham was the first individual to comprehend these three fundamental pitfalls in man’s search for “Eden”. Therefore, it could be said that Lot was choosing the path leading away from “Eden” when he decided to part from Abraham, the one man in the world who could teach him how to transcend the predicament of the human condition. Expanding somewhat on the commentary of Rashi quoted above, this is perhaps the reason why the verse states that Lot travelled mi’kedem.