Moses (Moshe in Hebrew) was the miracle-working leader chosen by G‑d to take the Israelites out of Egypt more than 3,300 years ago. The greatest prophet who ever lived, Moses transcribed the Torah (also known as the Five Books of Moses), the foundational text of Judaism.

The Life of Moses

Moses was born in Egypt on the 7th of Adar in the year 2368 from creation (1393 BCE) at a time when the Israelites were slaves to Pharaoh and subject to many harsh decrees. He was the third of Jochebed and Amram's three children. His brother, Aaron, was his senior by three years, and his sister, Miriam, was older by six years.

His father, a prominent leader of the tribe of Levi, is referred to in the Talmud as “the greatest of the generation.”

Fearing the birth of a leader who would take the Israelite slaves out of Egypt, Pharaoh decreed that all Israelite boys be drowned. Moses’ mother and sister were midwives, and they bravely disregarded the cruel edict.

Read: Who Were the Hebrew Midwives?

When Jochebed gave birth to a son (three months early), she hid him at home until he was three months old and she could hide him no longer. Then Jochebed put her son in a waterproof basket, and set him afloat in the Nile.

While his sister watched, the little boy was retrieved from the river by Pharaoh's daughter, Bithiah,1 who then raised him in the palace.

When he grew older, Moses left the palace and observed the suffering of his brothers. One day, he saw an Egyptian cruelly beating a Hebrew slave. Using the name of G‑d, he killed the Egyptian and hid his body in the sand. The following day, he went out again and saw two Hebrews quarreling. When he saw that one man was about to strike the other, he intervened, criticizing the would-be attacker. The man taunted him, asking: “Will you kill me like you killed the Egyptian?”

Realizing that he could not stay, Moses fled Egypt and made his way to Midian, where he married Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro, and fathered two sons, Gershom and Eliezer.

When he was 80 years old, Moses was shepherding his father-in-law’s sheep when G‑d revealed Himself in a burning bush on Mount Horeb (Sinai) and instructed him to liberate the children of Israel.

Moses hesitated, feeling that he was unworthy and that neither Pharaoh nor the people would listen to him, in part because he had a speech impediment.

Upon his return to Egypt, Moses and his brother, Aaron, confronted Pharaoh, telling him that G‑d said it was time for His nation to be taken from Egypt so that they could serve Him. Pharaoh refused to consider their petition.

Moses and Aaron were then instrumental in bringing the Ten Plagues upon the Egyptians, starting with water turning to blood and ending with the death of every firstborn Egyptian.

After Pharaoh agreed to let his slaves go free, Moses led them out, and the miracles continued. After a week, Pharaoh changed his mind and decided to chase the Hebrews. Reaching the Red Sea, Moses led his people through the water on dry land, leaving the Egyptian pursuers to die in the churning sea.

For the next 40 years, Moses cared for the children of Israel “as a nurse carries a baby,” fulfilling their every need, and representing them before G‑d, especially when they messed up and incurred His displeasure—which happened all too often.

Moses’ tenure as leader was punctuated by episodes of rebellion and complaint. Just 10 days after leaving Egypt, they complained about the water being bitter. G‑d had Moshe sweeten the water miraculously. Afterwards, on the 15th Iyar, they complained about not having food, and G‑d gave them the manna. And then at Rephidim, they complained about not having water, and G‑d told Moshe to hit a rock so that a stream of water would gush out of it.

Moses: Giver of the Torah

Of all his accomplishments, Moses is most famous for bringing the children of Israel the Torah, G‑d’s blueprint for a moral life. In fact, the five books of the Torah are known as the Five Books of Moses.

Here is how it happened: Six weeks after Moses led the people out of Egypt, they came to Mount Sinai. Six days after their arrival, G‑d’s presence covered the mountain, and He spoke the Ten Commandments—the essence of the Torah—to the people. According to tradition, the people heard the first two commandments from G‑d, but then were not able to handle G‑d’s speech, so Moses repeated the Ten Commandments to them.

Moses then ascended Mount Sinai and stayed there for 40 days while the people waited below. During this time period, he did not eat or drink. G‑d taught him every detail of the Torah, which Moses then recorded in (part of) the text that came to be known as the Torah.

G‑d also gave Moses two tablets of sapphire, upon which the Ten Commandments were engraved.

Read: What Happened at Sinai?

When the 40 days were up, the people did not see Moses come down, and they panicked, fearing that he would never descend the mountain. Reverting back to the idolatrous ways of the Egyptians, they fashioned a golden calf and worshipped it.

G‑d told Moses to descend to the people. As Moses approached the camp, he saw the revelry and debauchery surrounding the idol worship and threw down the tablets, smashing them to pieces.

Moses went on to lead his tribe, Levi, in slaying those who had participating in the creation of the idol.

Moses ascended the mountain for another 40 days until he had secured G‑d’s promise that He would not destroy the nation, but give them a second chance—something that would happen again and again during Moses’ tenure as leader.

After a third 40-day stay on the mountain top, Moses came down with G‑d’s complete forgiveness and a second set of tablets, indicating that G‑d had completely forgiven the nation.

Read: The 120-Day Version of the Human Story

In the Torah, G‑d gave Moses a complete set of instructions for life, ranging from what Jews may eat (kosher) to the laws of marriage (no incest or adultery), from how to worship (no graven images) to what Jews’ homes should look like (install a mezuzah on the doorpost).

Moses conveyed these instructions (mitzvahs) to the nation and also recorded them in brief in the Torah.

Many of the instructions, however, were not written. These are known as halachah leMoshe miSinai (“laws [given] to Moses from Sinai”).

Read: What Is a Mitzvah?

The Spies

Poised to enter the Holy Land, the people sent 12 spies to scout out the Holy Land, each spy representing a tribe. With the exception of Joshua and Caleb (who represented Ephraim and Judah respectively), the spies came back with terrifying reports of giants, mutant fruits and impenetrable cities.

The people cried all that night, balking at the prospect of entering the Holy Land. G‑d told Moses He was ready to destroy the nation, but Moses begged for clemency, and G‑d relented. But the damage was done. The people would wander in the desert for 40 years. With the exception of Caleb and Joshua, all men of fighting age would die in the desert. Only then would the people of Israel be ready to enter the Promised Land.

Read: The Full Story of the Spies

Moses was spared from that decree. But ultimately he, too, would be prevented from entering the land. Here is how:

Showdown at the Rock

After the passing of Miriam, the well that was provided in her merit disappeared, and the people thirsted for water. G‑d told Moses and Aaron to speak to a rock, and it would give water. Moses and Aaron struck the rock instead, following the instructions they were given earlier in Rephidim, when G‑d had told them to strike a rock with their staff to produce water. But by striking the rock instead of speaking to it, they missed an opportunity to demonstrate that even a rock obeys G‑d's words without the need to be hit, which was the reason that G‑d had specifically told them to speak to the rock. G‑d told them that they would be punished for not following His word: both of them would pass away in the desert rather than be allowed to lead the people into the Land of Israel.

Moses begged and pleaded, but it was to no avail. He would lead the people up the border of Israel, lead them in conquering the lands on the east of the Jordan River, and even see the Holy Land from a distance. But he would remain buried outside, alongside the generation of people he had led out of Egypt.

Passing of Moses

As Moses approached his 120th birthday, he was still energetic, with great eyesight and smooth skin, but his days were numbered. Starting 40 days before his passing, he left his last will and testament to the people. In it, he reminded them of key elements of their history and reiterated many of the mitzvahs. Especially prominent in his talk was the admonition never to serve idols.

Moses wrote this speech down as well, forming the book of Deuteronomy, the last of the Five Books of Moses.

Then, on his 120th birthday, Moses ascended Mount Nebo, where G‑d granted him a view of the Land of Israel, which he so longed to enter. Moses then died “by the kiss of G‑d,” and no one knew where he was buried.

The people mourned for Moses for 40 days. But all was not lost. Even before his passing, Moses had appointed Joshua, his faithful protégé, who would lead them into the Land of Israel.

Name of Moses

The name Moses is the Greek rendering of the Hebrew name Moshe (which means “drawn out”). This name was given by his adopted mother, Bithiah, when she pulled the boy out of the Nile River.

Moses had many other names as well. The Midrash tells us that he had no less than 10 names, the most famous among them being Avigdor, Toviah and Yekutiel.

Moses is often called Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses Our Teacher). He was a fearless warrior, an inspiring leader and the greatest prophet to ever live. Yet we remember Moses primarily as the teacher of the law, whose faithful transmission of G‑d’s word continues to reverberate in Jewish hearts and homes until today.

Understanding Moses

Humble Moses

The Torah describes Moses as the humblest man who ever lived. How can that be true? Did he not know that G‑d had chosen him from among all of humanity to lead His nation out of bondage? And that G‑d spoke to him “face to face” in a way that had never happened before and would never happen again?

The key, say the chassidic masters, is that Moses never attributed these accomplishments to himself. He recognized that it was G‑d who had selected him and endowed him with unique qualities. If G‑d would have chosen someone else, he reasoned, that person would surely have done even better.

Watch: True Humility

Moses Stuttered

The Midrash tells us that when Moses was a small boy in Pharaoh’s palace, he once grabbed the pharaoh’s crown and placed it on his head. Pharaoh feared that the little boy was after the monarchy. To test him, the royal advisors suggested that the pharaoh place glittering gold and an equally shiny hot coal before the boy. If Moses would reach for the coal, it would be clear that he was simply attracted to shiny objects.

Faced with an array of bright things, Moses was about to reach for the gold, but an angel redirected his hand toward the coal. Moses took a piece of coal and put it in his mouth. He burned his mouth, and from then on, he spoke with difficulty.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi explains that Moses’ stutter was reflective of his spiritual state. His soul was from the world of Tohu (“chaos”), which is above and beyond our reality. This resulted in his inability to relate to (or communicate with) those around him.

Read: Why Did Moses Stutter?

Moses the Shepherd

The mystics refer to Moses as the raya mehemna. Generally translated as “faithful shepherd,” these words can also be rendered “shepherd of faith.”

Moses did more than make sure his flock had food and drink. He actively sustained their faith in G‑d. On a most basic level, he did this by teaching them about G‑d and His will. On a deeper plane, he sustained the people’s faith by connecting them to the essence of their souls, enabling them to tap into a reservoir of faith that they had all along, yet never activated.

In every generation, leaders of the Jewish people—from Mordechai to Maimonides—have filled this role, leading, guiding and inspiring the people to come closer to G‑d, closer to their faith, closer to themselves.

Read: The Rebbe’s Last Discourse