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Who was Moses?

Moses is the most important Jewish prophet. He’s traditionally credited with writing the Torah and with leading the Israelites out of Egypt and across the Red Sea. In the book of Exodus, he’s born during a time when the Pharaoh of Egypt has ordered every male Hebrew to be drowned. To protect Moses, his mother sends him down the Nile in a basket, where he is ultimately noticed by Pharaoh’s daughter. She adopts him as her own and raises him in Pharaoh’s court.

Even though he is free, Moses’ compassion for the slaves leads him to kill an overseer he sees beating a slave — which forces Moses to run away from Egypt. While the Passover story shows Moses’ compassion, it also depicts him as reluctant to obey God’s order to save the Jews. But a common motif of Judaism is that the things one ought to do aren’t virtues, but mitzvot — commandments and obligations. Moses is commanded to return and lead the Jews to freedom.

After Moses and the Jews leave Egypt, God gives him the Ten Commandments, which become the foundation of Jewish law and thought. For this reason, Moses is often referred to as the law-giver.

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Moses and the Jews do not reach Israel until they have wandered in the desert for a generation. Moses leads the people to the Promised Land, but cannot enter himself — an illustration of just how idealized Israel is in Jewish tradition, and why the politics of Israel today, including the Israel-Palestine conflict, can become a sometimes-touchy topic during the Seder.

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