Yesterday, I managed to empty the /etc directory on my macbook (don't ask how I did it. I was working on subsurface and had written a perl script to move system files around that had to be run with sudo. And I was still debugging...).
Anyway, once I realized what the problem was I did some googling but did not find the answer. So here, as a service to fellow humans googling for help is how to fix this.
The problem is that in /etc all kinds of system configuration files are stored and without it the system does not know anymore how to do a lot of things. For example it contains /etc/passwd which contains a list of all users, their home directories and similar things. Or /etc/shadow which contains (hashed) passwords or, and this was most relevant in my case, /etc/sudoers which contains a list of users who are allowed to run commands with sudo, i.e. execute commands with administrator privileges (in the GUI this shows as as a modal dialog asking you to type in your password to proceed).
In my case, all was gone. But, luckily enough, I had a time machine backup. So I could go 30 minutes back in time and restore the directory contents.
The problem was that after restoring it, it ended up as a symlink to /private/etc and user helling wasn't allowed to access its contents. And I could not sudo the access since the system could not determine I am allowed to sudo since it could not read /etc/sudoers.
I tried a couple of things including a reboot (as a last resort I figured I could always boot in target disk mode and somehow fix the directory) but it remained in /private/etc and I could not access it.
Finally I found the solution (so here it is): I could look at the folder in Finder (it had a red no entry sign on it meaning that I could not open it). But I could right click and select Information and there I could open the lock by tying in my password (no idea why that worked) and give myself read (and for that matter write) permissions and then everything was fine again.