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The Month of Elul
In the generation of the Exodus from Egypt, Moses ascended Mount Sinai three times. The first was to receive the Torah. The second was to plead with G-d for his forgiveness, after the Jewish people sinned in worshipping the golden calf.
Then, on the first day of Elul - the month immediately preceding Tishrei- Moses ascended the mountain a third time, to invoke G-d's abundant mercy for our complete atonement. He remained there for forty days, until Yom Kippur, when G-d cleansed us completely, as though we had never sinned.
Since then, these days are marked as a special period of Divine Grace, during which our sincere prayers are sure to find favor in the eyes of G-d.
Rosh Hashana is the day on which G-d completed the creation of this world, by creating Adam, the original man. Adam's very first act was to proclaim the Almighty as King of the Universe. He called upon all creatures: "Come, let us worship, bow down, and kneel before G-d, our maker."
Each Rosh Hashana, we too proclaim the Kingship of G-d, and reaffirm our commitment to serve Him well.
Just as on the original Rosh Hashana, G-d created the world for the first time, so each Rosh Hashana He reconsiders and re-evaluates the quality of our relationship with Him, and creates our world anew.
The Book of Life
On the first evening of Rosh Hashana, after services, we exchange the traditional blessing, "May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year."
Our sages explain that on Rosh Hashana, we all stand in judgment before G-d -- "like a flock of sheep before the shepherd." If we are worthy, we are "inscribed" in the "Book of Life." Ten days later, on Yom Kippur, the Book is sealed.
Through repentance, prayer, and charity, we can sweeten the decree, and merit G-d's blessings for health, wellbeing, and prosperity for the coming year.
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On Rosh Hashanah, the anniversary of creation,G‑drenews the creative energy that sustains our world. Once more, He is crowned as King of the universe. Just as trumpets are sounded at a coronation, the shofar announces G‑d’s continued kingship.
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Though these Days of Awe, as they are often called, are solemn, they are not sad. In fact, Yom Kippur is, in a subtle way, one of the happiest days of the year.
For on Yom Kippur we receive what is perhaps G-d's most sublime gift: His forgiveness. When one person forgives another, it is because of a deep sense of friendship and love that overrides the effect of whatever wrong was done. Similarly, G-d's forgiveness is an expression of His eternal, unconditional love.
Though we may have transgressed His will, our essence - our soul remains G-dly, and pure. Yom Kippur is the one day each year when G-d reveals most clearly that our essence and His essence are one. Moreover, on the level of the soul, the Jewish people are all truly equal and indivisible.
The more fully we demonstrate our essential unity by acting with love and friendship amongst ourselves, the more fully G-d's love will be revealed to us.
Immediately following the awesome days of Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur, we prepare for the joyous exuberance of Sukkot - the "Season of our Rejoicing."
After leaving Egypt, during the forty years of wandering in the wilderness, the Jewish people were surrounded by protective "clouds of glory."
In commemoration, and to enhance our awareness of G-d's all-embracing love and protection, we are commanded, "In Sukkahs (booths) you shall dwell, seven days" (Leviticus 23:42).
A Unique Mitzvah
Eating festive meals and spending time in the outdoor Sukkah is a delightful and unique religious experience.
Some have the custom of decorating the Sukkah with elaborate ornaments; others prefer to preserve its unadorned simplicity.
But whatever one's style, the Sukkah is the only Mitzvah in which we are completely surrounded, from head to toe, by the Mitzvah itself -- enveloped, as it were, in the divine presence.
Simchat Torah is the culmination of a month filled with uplifting experiences.
We have stood in awe before the King of the Universe; we have been forgiven and cleansed by His mercy; and we have experienced the joy of uniting with G-dliness through His beautiful commandments.
Now, we rejoice with His Torah.
We take the sacred scrolls in our arms and dance together, scholar and novice alike.
During the dancing, the scroll remains in its cover, for this is not a time for study.
The joy of Simchat Torah is far greater than any delight we may derive from intellectual understanding. Here again, we emphasize that sublime level of the Jewish soul where we are all one.
As the Circle Turns
On the evening of Simchat Torah, (and, as the Chabad Custom, in many communities, on the previous evening of Shemini Atzeret, we make seven "hakafot" (circlings) around the bimah, singing and dancing with the Torah scrolls.
On the morning of Simchat Torah, the final portion of the Torah is read, completing the annual cycle. Then we immediately start reading the beginning. Thus, we continue to nourish ourselves from the infinite wisdom of G-d's Torah - the eternal force that has bound us together and sustained us for more than 3,300 years.