The haftarah read on the Shabbat of Chol Hamoed Sukkot describes the “war of Gog and Magog.” This is a war of apocalyptic proportions that the prophets tell us will occur around the time of Moshiach’s coming. It is read on this Shabbat due to a tradition that this war will take place in the month of Tishrei, the month in which the festival of Sukkot is celebrated.

The war of Gog and Magog is described in a number of the books of the prophets. In summary, the war is described by Ezekiel in this haftarah as follows:

After the Jews are settled in their land, a coalition of nations led by Gog, king of the land of Magog, will be aroused to attack Israel. The military campaign will send tremors throughout the entire region, but G‑d will make it occur specifically in order for Gog and all his cohorts to receive their due downfall and punishment.

A great confusion will break out among the army of Gog. Mighty hailstones, fire and brimstone will rain down on them, causing so much havoc that they will begin killing each other.

The purpose of all these events is so that the world finally recognizes the sovereignty of G‑d.

(The prophet Zechariah (ch. 14 of his book) also describes this war, and states that Gog will make three attempts to vanquish Jerusalem. The third will prove to be successful, after which disaster will befall the city and its inhabitants. After this, however, Zechariah foresees the confusion and downfall of Gog and his hordes in similar terms as Ezekiel.)

The Spiritual War

The question as to whether this prophecy is to be fulfilled in the literal sense will be dealt with elsewhere.1 Either way, the war of Gog and Magog, like all concepts in the Torah, has a deeper meaning: it represents a very important part of the spiritual process of redemption.

In his exposition of the messianic era, Maharal (R. Yehudah Loewe) of Prague sets forth a principle with which we are to understand many of the occurrences regarding this time: “Every new existence requires the destruction of the first existence.” The prerequisite to a new kind of reality necessitates the complete uprooting of the previous reality. If the days of Moshiach were to be a mere improvement upon the days of exile, then it might have been possible for the messianic experience to be built upon them. Since, though, the era of Moshiach will be completely without parallel in any previous era, this evokes the need for a dissolution and “destruction” of the previous reality.

Maharal uses this principle to explain a puzzling idea:

An examination of the teachings of our sages regarding the time before the coming of Moshiach leads us to conclude that this is a time when the world will be bereft of all kinds of moral conduct.2 In addition, our sources contain some very grim descriptions of suffering in the era before Moshiach's coming, known in Jewish literature as chevlei Moshiach, “the birthpangs of Moshiach.” Now, this seems to be very odd indeed. If the days of Moshiach are to be the time when the world will reach the peak of physical and spiritual perfection, why then is the time of preparation for it described as such a low and awful era?

The explanation is that indeed this first stage is the necessary process in bringing about the second stage. This time of turmoil and spiritual lows will entirely deconstruct the world order that existed until then, thus allowing for the entry of an entirely new world order.

It is in this way that Maharal explains the war of Gog and Magog as one of the preparations for the era of Moshiach. The idea of unity, or “oneness,” will be the defining concept of the messianic era. The entire world will recognize and see the one G‑d. A singular king, Moshiach, ruling a singular nation, the Jewish people, will be the undisputed world leader of the time. Now, all this entirely contradicts the world order that exists prior to Moshiach—many nations under many leaders, mostly at at odds with each other; and myriads of different belief systems and religions, all of which oppose one another.

On a more esoteric level, the lack of “oneness” is another way of describing the lack of G‑dliness. Within G‑dliness there is no sense of divisiveness: every element in creation is seen as a part of the G‑dly project, and is in existence for a G‑dly purpose. In such a reality there is no room for sin or evil.

The war of Gog and Magog will be an expression of the final cosmic struggle between a world of wholesomeness and a world of dichotomy —or, in simple terms, between a world of G‑dliness and a world of idolatry.

The good news is that the former will eventually win. To quote Maharal: “Moshiach, the son of David, will be victorious over the idol-worshipers. He will remove their strength, and with them - the evil inclination itself… It now becomes clear to you from the above that this war of Gog and Magog is to remove the deficiency of this world, and therefore at that time there will be the removal of the evil inclination.”3

It’s all starting to happen…

This spiritual dimension of Gog and Magog is invoked by the chassidic masters as the explanation for the emergence of much vehement opposition to Torah and Judaism by certain Jews and the movements they led—this, at the very same time in history as the emergence of the Baal Shem Tov and the chassidic movement:

The teachings of Chassidus taught by the saintly chassidic rebbes were, and continue to be, an unprecedented beam of G‑dly light in a dark world. It reveals and explains the core and essence of Torah, and in this way carries with it the kind of revelation that will come in the days of Moshiach. Additionally, the saintliness that emanated from the Baal Shem Tov, his holy students, and the tzaddikim after them was incredibly palpable and real.

Yet there were those who stubbornly and brazenly dismissed all this as being nonsense. This kind of approach was never accompanied by any rationale or proper examination, but was rather predicated entirely upon ignorance and impudence. Why all of a sudden? And why precisely when a real experience of G‑dliness seemed so available?

“This is a sign,” said the chassidic masters, “that the new light of Moshiach has already begun shining on high.” It is precisely this process that was foreseen by our prophets: the physical and spiritual decomposition of the world, all by way of preparation for the entry into the entirely new reality of Moshiach’s arrival.4