Lot's Journey "from the East"
Parashat Lekh Lekha introduces us to the progenitors of the people of Israel. At God's behest, Avram and Sarai and their adopted nephew Lot bravely abandon home and hearth, kith and kin, their birthplace and their social and cultural moorings, buoyed only by the promise of His eternal blessing and by the vision of a brighter future in a new and unknown land. Scarcely have they arrived in Canaan, however, when famine forces them to temporarily relocate to Egypt, a setback that serves as a harbinger of the many more challenges and difficulties that lie ahead. But never does the aged couple surrender their trust in God's promise, even as the prospects of their begetting a nation and possessing a land sometimes seem utterly beyond reach.
One of these moments of despair, when God's promise is all that remains of the dreams of nationhood, must surely be when Lot decides to leave Avram's side and to find his fortune elsewhere. Recall that Avram's nephew (and presumably his adopted son) had journeyed with them to Canaan, had descended with them to Egypt, and had returned with them to Canaan once again, now accompanying them back to the northern hill country of the Shomron region. But then a dispute broke out between Lot and his uncle over the scarcity of grazing land and Lot decided to move his flocks elsewhere.
LOT LEAVES AVRAM'S SIDE
The passage in its entirety reads as follows:
Lot, who accompanied Avram, also had sheep, cattle and tents. The land could not provide for both of them to dwell together, for their possessions were many, and they could not dwell together. There was a confrontation between the shepherds of Avram's flocks and the shepherds of Lot's flocks, and the Canaanites and the Perizites were then dwelling in the land. Avram said to Lot: Let there not be a confrontation between me and you and between my shepherds and your shepherds, for we are people who are kin. Behold the entire land is before you, separate from me; if you go to the north then I will go to the south, and if you go to the south then I will go to the north.
Lot lifted his gaze and saw that the whole Jordan valley was well-watered; this was before God had destroyed Sodom and 'Amora, for then the land was like the garden of God and like the land of Egypt, all the way to Tzoar. Lot chose for himself all of the valley of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed from the east ("mikedem"), so that each one of them separated from his kinsman. Avram dwelt in the land of Canaan, but Lot dwelt in the cities of the plain, and pitched his tents towards Sodom. Now the people of Sodom were very wicked and iniquitous to God…(Bereishit 13:5-13).
The falling out between Avram and Lot was ostensibly triggered by a lack of grazing land. Recall that Avram had emerged from Egypt not only intact, but also "laden with flocks, silver and gold" (13:2) and Lot, who had gone down with them to Egypt, had presumably also benefited from Pharaoh's largesse. Returning to the more spartan hill country, the two kinsmen soon discovered that there was not enough grazing land for both of them to occupy the same region. But whereas Avram had surely meant that Lot should merely distance himself somewhat, still close by but no longer too near to cause conflict over insufficient resources, Lot took the confrontation as an opportunity to strike it out on his own. Leaving the foreboding hills, Lot descended into the lush and fertile Jordan plain, where the sinful city of Sodom and its satellites shimmered in the heat.
RASHI'S TWO READINGS
The critical verse that describes the moment of their parting has spawned a number of interpretations, and Rashi offers two readings:
Lot journeyed from the east – he journeyed from near to Avram and proceeded to the west of Avram. Thus he journeyed from the east to the west. The Midrash explains it to mean that he caused himself to journey from the Eternal One of the world ("Kidmono shel olam"), for he exclaimed: "I desire neither Avram nor his God!" (commentary to 13:12).
Rashi's first reading is entirely geographical. When the text states that Lot journeyed "from the east" it must mean that he journeyed from the east towards the west. Thus Lot found himself to the west of Avram and from there he proceeded into the Jordan plain where he pitched his tents towards Sodom. In Rashi's second reading, admittedly Midrashic in nature, Lot's journey is not geographical but rather axiological. His journey away from Avram is in reality a distancing from Avram's values and the God that he champions, and an overdue realignment with the cultural norms of wicked Sodom. In Rashi's second reading, the word "mikedem" – "from the east" – is construed as "miKidmono shel olam" – away from the "Eternal One of the world," namely God.
Rashi's second reading is predicated upon the natural association that obtains between "east" and "eternal." The east is of course the direction of the rising sun. In fact, the synonymous word "mizrach" in Hebrew that also describes the eastern direction, really means "the place of the brightness" (Z-R-Ch), and refers specifically to the direction of the sunrise. Incidentally, this solar preeminence also finds expression in other languages of the region: the Greek "anatolia," the Latin "orient," and the Italian "levant" all refer to the eastern direction as well as to the sunrise. In any case, the Hebrew "kedem" that literally means "before" or "in front" is sometimes also used in the sense of the eastern direction, since that is the orientation of the human body when a person faces the position of the sunrise. While "kedem" often has a spatial application, it may also assume a temporal quality as well, just as "before" may mean physically "in front off" or it may mean temporally "earlier than." In the Midrashic reading advanced by Rashi, the journey from the east becomes the journey from "He that preceded all," namely God. At first glance Rashi's Midrash may strike as fanciful and contrived but we may yet decide that it is more relevant to the passage than meets the eye.
THE PROBLEMATICS OF JOURNEYING "FROM THE EAST"
Rashi's first reading, however, is most problematic. While the text certainly indicates that Lot journeys "from the east" and Rashi reasonably explains this to mean "from the east towards the west," the difficulty lies in reconciling Rashi's interpretation with the physical geography of the land of Israel. The locations of Beit El and 'Ai are without doubt in the hill country; the city of Sodom is in the Jordan plain. He who journeys from the hill country towards the plain of the Jordan, therefore, most certainly travels from west to east and not from east to west! Why would Lot journey from the east westwards if his destination is the valley that lies due east of Avram? According to Rashi one would have to advance the most improbable reading that though Lot wished to journey towards the east, he first descended from the hills westwards in a roundabout route that is utterly superfluous geographically and inexplicable textually. Why would the Torah include this detail that seemingly adds nothing to the narrative? The focus of the passage is Lot's abandonment of Avram for the allure of sultry Sodom. Why would the pivotal passage that describes the painful parting introduce a curious description of Lot's navigational challenges?
The super-commentaries on Rashi do little to dispel the confusion. Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrachi (15th century, Constantinople), for instance, aware from other Biblical passages that the Jordan valley was to the east but puzzled by Rashi's contention that Lot journeyed from the east towards the west seeking the cities of the plain, advances a most difficult theory. He suggests, admittedly as a conjecture, that perhaps the Jordan valley was to the east of the hill country as well as to its west, so that the hill country rose up as some sort of elevated peninsula in its midst!
We cannot fault Rashi or the other commentaries for their lack of intimate familiarity with the topographical realities of the land. How could they have known then what those of us who live in the land know now, bound as they were to the European continent even as their hearts pined for eastern climes and for the mythical land of their ancestors? How distant and beyond reach the land of Israel was for them, with both its sacred earth as well as their diaspora communities under the harsh domination of hostile rulers that discouraged any overt expressions of Jewish connection to that holy place! If anything, we must stand in awe of what they were able to achieve in their explication of many a geographical passage in the Tanakh, for they constructed a fairly accurate picture of the land and its regions, its flora, fauna and features, based entirely upon scattered, fleeting and often tangential Biblical references!
"EAST" VERSUS "KEDEM"
To return to our passage, perhaps we may suggest a different approach. Recall that the difficulty in the verse that describes Lot's parting consists in the fact that it explicitly states that he "traveled FROM the east" when it might have been expected to say that he "traveled TO the east." This is because the plain of the Yarden that was his destination was to the east of both Beit El as well as the 'Ai, these being associated with the hill country. But what if the word "Kedem" means something other than "east" in this context, so that Lot's journey was not from the east towards the Jordan valley (which introduces the difficult reading advanced by Rashi) but rather from "Kedem" to that place?
Parashat Lekh Lekha, of course, describes the arrival of Avram and Sarai in the land after they have abandoned home and hearth at God's behest and have traveled far and wide in search of Him. The beginning of the Parasha indicates that "Avram traversed the land until he arrived at the place of Shechem and Elon Moreh, and the Canaanite was then in the land" (12:6). After God appeared to him in a vision and promised him both progeny as well as the land, Avram relocated to the hill country, "east of Beit El and there pitched his tent, so that Beit El was from the west and the 'Ai was from the east, and there he built an altar to God and called upon His name" (12:8). In other words, at this point, Avram's base in the land and the location of his tent was between Beit El and the 'Ai, and more specifically east or "kedem" of Beit El. There he first built an altar to God's name and called upon Him as his God.
Later, after Avram and Sarai emerged from Egypt, after Pharaoh has been chastened and Avram has been vindicated, the family retraced their steps, now traveling from the Delta towards the Negev and from there northwards towards their earlier location:
He journeyed in accordance with his encampments from the south ("negev") until Beit El, until the very place where his tent had been located at first, between Beit El and the 'Ai. To the place of the altar that he had fashioned at the first, and there Avram called upon God name (13:4).
It is immediately after this reference that the struggle with Lot breaks out and that Lot parts ways with his uncle. But notice how the Torah goes to pains to indicate to us that on the eve of the confrontation, Avram had returned to their initial encampment where the patriarch had earlier built an altar to God and where he had called upon His name in a public demonstration of his faith. And this location was between Beit El and 'Ai, and more specifically "east" or "Kedem" of Beit EL. Is it possible that after Avram had made this location his base in the new land and had invested it with significance and sanctity on account of his worship there that it became known simply as "Kedem" or "eastwards"? In other words, when the text tells us that Avram pitched his tent "east of Beit El" (12:8) it is also suggesting that a new name was given to the location, namely "Kedem." This is not only, perhaps, a description of its specific location east of Beit El but also a reference to Avram's own origins, for though he had hailed from the "east" he had left his family because of his love for God.
REEVALUATING RASHI'S MIDRASH
Thus, when the Torah tells us that Lot abandoned Avram in search of greener pastures and traveled to the environs of Sodom and the valley of the Yarden, it is emphasizing that the ungrateful nephew also abandoned Avram's mission to introduce God to the world. Lot left behind the site of Avram's altar and the place where he had publicly called upon God's name. Lot, then, journeyed not "from the east" as Rashi earlier explained with so much geographical difficulty, but rather "from KEDEM," where "Kedem" is not used as the generic word for "east" but rather as the specific place name at which Avram had established their home almost from the time that they had first entered the land. And, ironically enough, that name itself was an emphatic declaration on the part of Avram that to follow God was to leave behind one's origins and one's home! Thus, while Lot was truly traveling from the west towards the east insofar as the direction of the compass was concerned, he was simultaneously journeying "FROM Kedem," that being the name of the location where Avram had lived, and so designated by the patriarch because of his efforts to call upon God.
The profound truth of Rashi's second and Midrashic reading can now be readily appreciated. If in fact Lot's departure towards the plain of the Jordan was truly more than a geographic relocation, as the above analysis of "Kedem" suggests, then how trenchant indeed is the observation of the Midrash on this matter: "he caused himself to journey from the Eternal One of the world ("Kidmono shel olam"), for he exclaimed: 'I desire neither Avram nor his God!'"
In conclusion, we may note that perhaps Rashi himself was sensitive to the difficulty introduced by his first interpretation. Perhaps Rashi knew that Lot could not really have been traveling from the east to the west if in fact he was heading towards Sodom. And so Rashi provided us with a Midrashic reading that recast the journey as existential and not geographical and that reinterpreted "kedem" as something other than "east." Our analysis thus supports Rashi's second reading, for it too suggests that "kedem" in this context is not to be understood in its usual sense. The true import of the journey must be gauged by the implications of Lot leaving his uncle behind even as he chooses to embrace a way of life at odds with his uncle's earlier activities at the site and inimical to his uncle's ideals. And so Lot journeys from "Kedem" in the more profound sense of the term, just as Rashi intimates.