On Sukkos there is a special Harachaman [add on] that we say at the end of Birkas HaMazon: “The Merciful One! May he erect for us the fallen sukkah of David.” This prayer is based on a pasuk in this week’s Haftorah for the Torah portions of Acharei Mos and Kedoshim, taken from Amos: “On that day I will erect the fallen sukkah of David; I will repair their breaches and erect his ruins, and I will rebuild it as in days of old” (Amos 9:11).
There is a fascinating Gemara quoting this pasuk in Sanhdrin 96b-97a: “R. Nahman said to R. Isaac: ‘Have you heard when Bar Nafle will come?’ ‘Who is Bar Nafle?’ he asked. ‘Messiah,’ he answered, ‘Do you call Messiah ,Bar Nafle?’ — ‘Even so,’ he rejoined, ‘as it is written, in that day I will raise up the tabernacle of David ha-nofeleth [that is fallen].’ He replied, ‘Thus hath R. Johanan said: in the generation when the son of David [i.e., Messiah] will come, scholars will be few in number, and as for the rest, their eyes will fail through sorrow and grief. Multitudes of trouble and evil decrees will be promulgated anew, each new evil coming with haste before the other has ended.’ Our Rabbis taught: in the seven year cycle at the end of which the son of David will come-in the first year, this verse will be fulfilled: And I will cause it to rain upon one city and cause it not to rain upon another city; in the second, the arrows of hunger will be sent forth; in the third, a great famine, in the course of which men, women, and children, pious men and saints will die, and the Torah will be forgotten by its students; in the fourth, partial plenty; in the fifth, great plenty, when men will eat, drink and rejoice, and the Torah will return to its disciples; in the sixth, [Heavenly] sounds; in the seventh, wars; and at the conclusion of the septennate the son of David will come. R. Joseph demurred: But so many septennates have passed, yet has he not come! — Abaye retorted: Were there then [Heavenly] sounds in the sixth and wars in the seventh! Moreover, have they [sc. the troubles] been in this order!” (Credit is given to Soncino taken from e-daf.com for the Gemara translation.)
The Gemara describes the ups and downs of the seven years before Moshiach reveals himself. In the third year there will be a major famine and much Torah will be forgotten. In the fifth year there will be plenty of food and drink and Torah will be reinvigorated to its original state. The Iyun Yaakov explains this phenomenon with a Mishna in Pirkay Avos: “In the third year there will be a great famine… and Torah will be lost ‘for if there is no flour (i.e. food) there is no Torah’ (Avos 3:17). Therefore in the fifth year where there will be a great abundance of food, the Torah will return to those who learn it. This is also the reason why the Torah was given to those who ate the manna.” (Click here and here for Hebrew text.)
The Iyun Yaakov states a rule that the Torah cannot be fully appreciated and understood without satiation, having a well-balanced meal. For that reason the generation in the desert were most appropriate to receive the Torah, because they received their sustenance directly from Heaven, a perfect amount of food given per each individual’s needs.
However, if this is true then why does another Mishna in Pirkay Avos state: “According to one’s suffering is his reward” (Avos 5:23)? Indeed, Rashi on that Mishna states that according to the pain and suffering one puts into the involvement in learning or doing mitzvos, he receives a corresponding degree of reward. Elsewhere in Avos it also says: “This is the way of Torah: Eat bread with salt, drink water in small measure, sleep on the ground, live a life of suffering – but toil in the Torah! If you do this ‘You are praiseworthy, and all is well with you’” (Tehillim 128:2). ‘You are praiseworthy’ – in this world; ‘and all is well with you’ – in the World to Come” (Avos 6:4). Although Rashi says there that this Mishna is not referring to the rich, and that they have to live a life of suffering in order to learn Torah, rather what it means is that even if a person only has bread and salt, and can only sleep on the ground without a cushion and pillow, he must be ready to do that and not stop involving himself in Torah study. For in the end, he will be wealthy in learning. If that is the case, it seems to contradict our gemara in Sanhedrin. For the third year is a year of utter suffering, complete famine, and the gemara says people will forget Torah. Why would they forget? On the contrary, in a situation like this the Mishna says ‘don’t give up, work harder and in the end you will learn with wealth,’ as Rashi points out. The more suffering and toil you put into it the more reward you get; so why does the Gemara in Sanhedrin say that in the third year before Moshiach comes, Torah will be lost?
It must be that there is a difference between living a simple life and total deprivation. The Mishna in the sixth perek of Pirkay Avos is teaching us that even if a person has to live a simple life, just on bread, salt, and minimal water, which is not so easy, he can and should adjust to the situation to toil as hard as possible in his Torah learning and not give up. But a person is still human. Hashem created the human being as part physical and part spiritual; we are able to elevate our physical sense to make it more holy or closer to the spiritual. However, “if there is no flour there is no Torah;” and the Torah will therefore be lost.
Hashem doesn’t want us to suffer when performing His mitzvos and learning His Torah. If a person is wealthy it could be a blessing to be able to learn comfortably, as long as he keeps up his learning. However a person must be ready to commit his life to learning even if things aren’t easy, even if he must live a simple life; but he still must live.If there is famine and barely anything, Hashem created the world in a way that Torah would then be lost. Yet all hope is not lost, because Hashem runs the world and “in the fifth year” Hashem will provide a year of plenty, and the Torah will be remembered again – as long as one puts his full effort into his learning.