Forty days without Moses is a long time.

‘WHILE THE Golden Calf surprised Moses, Herzl was ready to confront it.’  (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)‘WHILE THE Golden Calf surprised Moses, Herzl was ready to confront it.’ (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Theodor Herzl predicted that there would be those dancing around the Golden Calf once the Jewish state was established.

That dance, depicted in this week’s Torah portion, seems to shadow the Hebrews since the beginning and is intertwined with natural human confusion between immigration as an essence vs. it merely being a tool toward a greater mission.

In Lech Lecha, Abraham emigrated out of Ur of the Chaldees. God made clear right away that this exodus had an essence: “And I will make of thee a great nation.” God reiterated that the mandate was for Abraham’s seed to inherit the land. The migration out of Ur of the Chaldees was just a necessary tool for its fulfillment: “I am the Lord Who brought thee out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give thee this land to inherit it.”

Abraham seemed to possibly have had his own moment of unclarity between essence and tool. Unauthorized, Abraham apparently assigned his God-given inheritance rights to his servant Damascus Eliezer: “And Abram said, ‘Behold, to me Thou hast given no seed, and lo, one born in my house is to be my heir.”

Years of waiting for offspring led Abraham to conclude that God’s plan must have changed. He then unilaterally negated the mandate, based on rational reasoning, such as his wife’s old age, as opposed to faith.

While Abraham first understands his error – “And he believed in the Lord; and He counted it to him for righteousness” – he then seems to lapse right back into doubt: “‘O Lord God, whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?” God reacts with what could be interpreted as a punishment or adjustment to the plan; informing Abraham that he is taking his seed into exile!

There was apparently a need for a redo – another exodus. Indeed, God notes that the fourth generation will come back from exile into the Promised Land “with great substance.” This materializes, but when Moses leads this fourth generation out of Egypt, that same confusion ensues.

God made it clear that this exodus, just like Abraham’s, has an essence: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God.” The mandate God gave Moses was for his people to accept God as their Lord. “And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, that brought them forth out of the land of Egypt, that I may dwell among them.”

Moses goes up to Mount Sinai to fulfill the mandate. But downstairs there are those who think the mandate was merely the Exodus from Egypt. They tell Aaron, “Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him.”
Forty days without Moses is a long time. The Hebrews reach a conclusion, which just like Abraham’s, is based on rationality and not faith. Unauthorized, they assign the God-given appointment of Moses to an object they created themselves: the Golden Calf.

God retaliates, as he did in response to Abraham’s actions. God first contemplates replacing the nation seeded by Abraham with a new one seeded by Moses. Once Moses pleads with God not to do so, a different adjustment is made: building the Tabernacle. Many biblical interpreters point to causality between the Golden Calf and the subsequent order to build the Tabernacle.

INDEED, FOR the next six months, the Hebrews believed in the Lord, and he seems to count it to them as righteousness. The people even over-donate to the building of the Tabernacle, which turned into the cornerstone of Judaism 1.0. For the next 1,400 years, Judaism was anchored around the worship in the Temple, until the Romans destroyed it and exiled the nation of Israel. When this European exile was about to come to an end, Theodor Herzl, who led the exodus, now had a valuable asset that Moses and Abraham did not: 2,000 years of nationwide learning of Abraham’s and Moses’s actions.

Herzl applied the lessons to the new exodus. Indeed, right at the onset, even before he made his plans public, he predicted, “We shall have to go through bitter struggles: with a regretful Pharaoh, with enemies, and especially with ourselves. The Golden Calf!”

Just as Herzl anticipated, the regretful Pharaohs appeared. The German Kaiser Wilhelm II at first assured Herzl that he would let the Hebrews go, but then his heart seemed to be hardened. Two decades later, the British received a mandate that included the building of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, but then reneged.

Yet, it was the other part – the bitter struggle with ourselves – that was the monumental hurdle to Zionism. A day after predicting the appearance of a Golden Calf, Herzl stunningly stated that he was ready for it. “I am prepared for anything: lamenting for the flesh-pots of Egypt, the dance around the Golden Calf, also the ingratitude of those who are most indebted to us.”

While the Golden Calf surprised Moses, Herzl was ready to confront it. He did so by underscoring that the exodus from Europe was not the essence but just a tool. To explain this, Herzl offered a profound interpretation of the Torah, arguing that the Exodus from Egypt was neither about leaving Egypt, nor about arriving in Canaan. It was, as Herzl called it, “education through migration.”

Herzl understood the Torah in ways others did not. In this and other aspects, Herzl remains one of the most misunderstood and understudied figures in Jewish history, as is his Zionism. Herzl predicted this part as well: “There are those people who do not understand us properly and think that the goal of our efforts is to come back to our land. Our ideal goes further than that. Our ideal is the great eternal truth.”

Indeed, some misunderstand Herzl’s Zionism so much that they argue that now that we are in Israel, we have entered a period of post-Zionism. This would be akin to labeling Abraham’s arrival in Canaan as post-monotheism and the Hebrew’s arrival in Canaan as post-Judaism.

On the contrary: Monotheism only began to develop upon Abraham’s arrival in Canaan, and Judaism only began to flourish upon the arrival in Canaan. Zionism, this “infinite ideal” as Herzl called it, is only in its infancy.

Using the analogy of stock market speculation, Herzl addressed those future skeptics: “Once we are over there, the dancers around the Golden Calf will be furious at my barring them from the Stock Exchange.” He argued that such stock market speculation “was all right in the time of our captivity. Now we have the duties of freedom. We must be a people of inventors, warriors, artists, scholars, honest merchants.”

Herzl’s Zionism was not about immigration but about a transformation: changing Jewish behavior and the Jewish mindset. Indeed, the emancipated nation of inventors is now increasingly celebrating its sacred duties of freedom. ■

The writer is chairman of the AIFL think tank and author of upcoming book Judaism 3.0 – How Judaism is transforming to Zionism. Visit For more on the parasha and Herzl, visit


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