Moses, Aaron and Miriam were the leaders of the Children of Israel at a pivotal time in our history: the Exodus from Egypt and the forty years of wandering in the desert before the people entered the Promised Land.
An entire book could be written on the stories of these three people. Indeed, four books have already been written: the biblical books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, which tell the story of their life and times. This page can only begin to scratch the surface.
As with the stories of the patriarchs, modern scholars question the historical accuracy of this information; however, scholars also claimed that the Torah could not have been written at that time because alphabetic writing did not exist … and then archaeologists dug up 4000 year old samples of alphabetic writing.
Moses was the greatest prophet, leader and teacher that Judaism has ever known. In fact, one of Rambam's 13 Principles of Faith is the belief that Moses' prophecies are true, and that he was the greatest of the prophets. He is called "Moshe Rabbeinu," that is, Moses, Our Teacher/Rabbi. Interestingly, the numerical value of "Moshe Rabbeinu" is 613: the number of mitzvot that Moses taught the Children of Israel! He is described as the only person who ever knew G-d face-to-face (Deut. 34:10) and mouth-to-mouth (Num. 12:8), which means that G-d spoke to Moses directly, in plain language, not through visions and dreams, as G-d communicated with other prophets.
Moses was born on 7 Adar in the year 2368 from Creation (circa 1400 BCE), the son of Amram, a member of the tribe of Levi, and Yocheved, Levi's daughter (Ex. 6:16-20). Unlike the heroes of many other ancient cultures, Moses did not have a miraculous birth. Amram married Yocheved, and she conceived, and she gave birth (Ex. 2:1-2). The only unusual thing about his birth is Yocheved's advanced age: Yocheved was born while Jacob and his family were entering Egypt, so she was 130 when Moses was born. His father named him Chaver, and his grandfather called him Avigdor, but he is known to history as Moses, a name given to him by Pharaoh's daughter.
The name "Moses" comes from a root meaning "take out," because Moses was taken out of the river (Ex. 2:10). Some modern scholars point out that the root M-S-S in Egyptian means "son of" as in the name Ramases (son of Ra), but it is worth noting that Moses' name in Hebrew is M-Sh-H, not M-S-S. According to one Jewish source, Pharaoh's daughter actually named him Minios, which means "drawn out" in Egyptian, and the name Moshe (Moses) was a Hebrew translation of that name, just as a Russian immigrant named Ivan might change his name to the English equivalent, John.
Moses was born in a very difficult time: Pharaoh had ordered that all male children born to the Hebrew slaves should be drowned in the river (Ex. 1:22). Yocheved hid Moses for three months, and when she could no longer hide him, she put him in a little ark and placed it on the river where Pharaoh's daughter bathed (Ex. 2:2-3). Pharaoh's daughter found the child and had compassion on him (Ex. 2:6). At the suggestion of Moses' sister Miriam, Pharaoh's daughter hired Yocheved to nurse Moses until he was weaned (Ex. 2:7-10). Yocheved instilled in Moses a knowledge of his heritage and a love of his people that could not be erased by the 40 years he spent in the antisemitic court of Pharaoh.
Little is known about Moses' youth. The biblical narrative skips from his adoption by Pharaoh's daughter to his killing of an Egyptian taskmaster some 40 years later. One traditional story tells that when he was a child, sitting on Pharaoh's knee, Moses took the crown off of Pharaoh's head and put it on. The court magicians took this as a bad sign and demanded that he be tested: they put a brazier full of gold and a brazier full of hot coals before him to see which he would take. If Moses took the gold, he would have to be killed. An angel guided Moses' hand to the coal, and he put it into his mouth, leaving him with a life-long speech impediment (Ex. 4:10).
Although Moses was raised by Egyptians, his compassion for his people was so great that he could not bear to see them beaten by Pharaoh's taskmasters. One day, when Moses was about 40 years old, he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave, and he was so outraged that he struck and killed the Egyptian (Ex. 2:11-12). But when both his fellow Hebrews and the Pharaoh condemned him for this action, Moses was forced to flee from Egypt (Ex. 2:14-15).
He fled to Midian, where he met and married Zipporah, the daughter of a Midianite priest (Ex. 2:16-21). They had a son, Gershom (Ex. 2:22). Moses spent 40 years in Midian tending his father-in-law's sheep. A midrash tells that Moses was chosen to lead the Children of Israel because of his kindness to animals. When he was bringing the sheep to a river for water, one lamb did not come. Moses went to the little lamb and carried it to the water so it could drink. Like G-d, Moses cared about each individual in the group, and not just about the group as a whole. This showed that he was a worthy shepherd for G-d's flock.
I'm sure everyone knows what happened next - if you haven't read the book, then you've certainly seen the movie. G-d appeared to Moses and chose him to lead the people out of Egyptian slavery and to the Promised Land (Ex. Chs. 3-4). With the help of his brother Aaron, Moses spoke to Pharaoh and triggered the plagues against Egypt (Ex. Chs. 4-12). He then led the people out of Egypt and across the sea to freedom, and brought them to Mount Sinai, where G-d gave the people the Torah and the people accepted it (Ex. Chs. 12-24).
G-d revealed the entire Torah to Moses. The entire Torah includes the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) that Moses himself wrote as G-d instructed him. It also includes all of the remaining prophecies and history that would later be written down in the remaining books of scripture, and the entire Oral Torah, the oral tradition for interpreting the Torah, that would later be written down in the Talmud. Moses spent the rest of his life writing the first five books, essentially taking dictation from G-d.
After Moses received instruction from G-d about the Law and how to interpret it, he came back down to the people and started hearing cases and judging them for the people, but this quickly became too much for one man. Upon the advice of his father-in-law, Yitro, Moses instituted a judicial system (Ex. 18:13-26).
Moses was not perfect. Like any man, he had his flaws and his moments of weakness, and the Bible faithfully records these shortcomings. In fact, Moses was not permitted to enter the Promised Land because of a transgression (Deut. 32:48-52). Moses was told to speak to a rock to get water from it, but instead he struck the rock repeatedly with a rod, showing improper anger and a lack of faith (Num. 20:7-13).
Moses died in the year 2488, just before the people crossed over into the Promised Land (Deut. 32:51). He completed writing the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) before he died. There is some dispute as to who physically wrote the last few verses of Deuteronomy: according to some, Moses wrote these last few verses from a vision of the future, but according to others, the last few verses were added by Joshua after Moses' death. In any case, these verses, like everything else in the Torah, were written by G-d, and the actual identity of the transcriber is not important.
Moses' position as leader of Israel was not hereditary. His son, Gershom, did not inherit the leadership of Israel. Moses' chosen successor was Joshua, son of Nun (Deut. 34:9).
Moses was 120 years old at the time that he died (Deut. 34:7). That lifespan is considered to be ideal, and has become proverbial: one way to wish a person well in Jewish tradition is to say, "May you live to be 120!"
As important as Moses was to the Children of Israel, it is always important to remember that Moses himself was not the deliverer or redeemer of Israel. It was G-d who redeemed Israel, not Moses. Moses was merely G-d's prophet, His spokesman. The traditional text of the Pesach haggadah does not even mention Moses' name. In order to prevent people from idolatrously worshipping Moses, his grave was left unmarked (Deut. 34:6).
Aaron was Moses' older brother. He was born in 2365, three years before Moses, before the Pharaoh's edict requiring the death of male Hebrew children. He was the ancestor of all koheins, the founder of the priesthood, and the first Kohein Gadol (High Priest). Aaron and his descendants tended the altar and offered sacrifices. Aaron's role, unlike Moses', was inherited; his sons continued the priesthood after him (Num. 20:26).
Aaron served as Moses' spokesman. As discussed above, Moses was not eloquent and had a speech impediment, so Aaron spoke for him (Ex. 4:10-16). Contrary to popular belief, it was Aaron, not Moses, who cast down the staff that became a snake before Pharaoh (Ex. 7:10-12). It was Aaron, not Moses, who held out his staff to trigger the first three plagues against Egypt (Ex. 7:19-20; Ex. 8:1-2 or 8:5-6; Ex. 8:12-13 or 8:16-17). According to Jewish tradition, it was also Aaron who performed the signs for the elders before they went to Pharaoh (Ex. 4:30).
Aaron's most notable personal quality is that he was a peacemaker. His love of peace is proverbial; Rabbi Hillel said, "Be disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and drawing them near the Torah." According to tradition, when Aaron heard that two people were arguing, he would go to each of them and tell them how much the other regretted his actions, until the two people agreed to face each other as friends.
In fact, Aaron loved peace so much that he participated in the incident of the Golden Calf (Ex. 32), constructing the idol in order to prevent dissension among the people. Aaron intended to buy time until Moses returned from Mount Sinai (he was late, and the people were worried), to discourage the people by asking them to give up their precious jewelry in order to make the idol, and to teach them the error of their ways in time (Ex. 32:22).
Aaron, like Moses, died in the desert shortly before the people entered the Promised Land (Num. 20).
Miriam was Aaron and Moses' older sister. According to some sources, she was seven years older than Moses, but other sources seem to indicate that she was older than that. Some sources indicate that Miriam was Puah, one of the midwives who rescued Hebrew babies from Pharaoh's edict against them (Ex. 1:15-19).
Miriam was a prophetess in her own right (Ex. 15:20), the first woman described that way in scripture (although Sarah is also considered to be a prophetess, that word is not applied to her in scripture). According to tradition, she prophesied before Moses' birth that her parents would give birth to the person who would bring about their people's redemption.
Miriam waited among the bulrushes while Moses' ark was in the river, watching over him to make sure he was all right (Ex. 2:4). When the Pharaoh's daughter drew Moses out of the water, Miriam arranged for their mother, Yocheved, to nurse Moses and raise him until he was weaned (Ex. 2:7-9).
Miriam led the women of Israel in a song and dance of celebration after the Pharaoh's men were drowned in the sea (Ex. 15:20-21). She is said to be the ancestress of other creative geniuses in Israel's history: Bezalel, the architect of the mishkan (the portable sanctuary used in the desert) (Ex. 31:1-3) and King David.
According to tradition, because of Miriam's righteousness, a well followed the people through the desert throughout their wanderings, and that well remained with them until the day of Miriam's death.
Like her brothers, Miriam was not perfect. She led her brother Aaron to speak against Moses over a matter involving a Cushite woman he had married (Zipporah, or possibly a second wife) (Num. 12:1). They also objected to his leadership, noting that he had no monopoly on Divine Communication (Num 12:2). For this, Miriam was punished with tzaaras (an affliction generally translated as leprosy) (Num. 12:10). However, Aaron pled on her behalf, and she was cured (Num. 12:11).
Like her brothers, Miriam died in the desert before the people reached the Promised Land (Num. 20:1).