Following the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, Chazal needed to find ways to encourage Am Yisrael to see grandeur within the individual mitzvot that they performed and to appreciate how even the most minor of spiritual acts can have a major spiritual impact, and as it happens, today’s daf (Sukkah 45) provides us with at least three examples of this endeavour:
Firstly, basing himself on Tehillim 118:27, Rabbi Elazar teaches (in Sukkah 45a) that ‘whoever takes the lulav with its binding and the hadas (myrtle) with its plaited leaves is considered as if they have built an altar and brought an offering onto it.’ What this suggests is that while we no longer have a Beit HaMikdash, through the mitzvot that we perform which we labour to bring or bind together, it is as if we have laboured to build an altar and brought a korban upon it.
Secondly, again basing himself on Tehillim 118:27, Rav Yochanan HaMakoti teaches (in Sukkah 45b) that ‘whoever joins the festival to eating and drinking (which, as Rashi explains, is either understood to refer to someone who makes a Chag pleasurable with good food and drink, or alternatively someone who make a festive meal on the day after a Chag, i.e. Isru Chag) is considered as if they have built an altar and brought an offering onto it’.
Significantly, this echoes a teaching of both Rav Yochanan and Reish Lakish found on the last page of Massechet Chagigah (27a) that ‘during the time of the Beit HaMikdash, the altar would atone for a person, whereas nowadays, their table (where, as Rashi notes, they provide food to visitors and thereby fulfil the mitzvah of Hachnasat Orchim) atones for them.’ What this suggests is that while we no longer have a Beit HaMikdash, through the good deeds which we perform to others that are intended to build them up, it is as if we have laboured to build an altar and brought a korban upon it.
Finally, while – as noted by the Maharsha – we are taught elsewhere (see Yevamot 49b) that only Moshe Rabbeinu was able to perceive the wisdom of God in a clear way (באספקלריה המאירה), it is implied in today’s daf (Sukkah 45b) that there are at least 36 righteous people who – on a daily basis – also encounter God in a clear way. But how is this so? As the Maharsha explains, though Moshe’s prophecy (נבואה) was unique, what is being described in today’s daf refers to connecting to God through Torah wisdom (חכמה). Here too this teaches us that a time where pure prophecy is beyond us, the study and meditation of Torah remains a timeless access point to our connection with and understanding of God.
Ultimately, what we learn from here is that while we no longer have a Beit HaMikdash, a Mizbeach (altar) or pure prophecy, there are things that can help us in our searching and yearning for closeness to God – namely the mitzvot we perform, the chessed that we do, and the Torah that we learn.