The translators of the Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvos1 differ on whether the first mitzvah focuses on belief in G‑d or knowledge of G‑d. Chassidus2 explains that both these potentials are relevant factors in our Divine service and each influences the other.

To explain: There is a narrative in the Torah that is very difficult to understand.3 When the angels told Avraham that Sarah would bear him a son, she laughed in disbelief. G‑d reproached her for laughing, telling her that nothing was beyond His power. Sarah denied that she had laughed; but G‑d insisted that she had.

Was Sarah playing games with G‑d?

No. There are levels of belief. On one level, Sarah believed that she could have a child. And yet inside,4 she laughed; she couldn’t conceive of it happening at all.5

In a similar vein, it is told that after R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev returned from Mezeritch after months of study, his father-in-law asked him, “What did you learn in Mezeritch?”

R. Levi Yitzchak answered that he learned that G‑d exists.

His father-in-law became upset. Was it for this his daughter had borne hardship for all those months? “Is that all?” he asked. “Everyone knows that. Even this maid!”

“Tell me,” the father-in-law said turning to the maid. “Do you know that G‑d exists?”

Although the maid answered affirmatively, R. Levi Yitzchak maintained there was a difference between them: “She says,” he explained. “I know.”

Chassidus explains that there are different plateaus of belief. Our Sages teach that:6 “A thief calls on G‑d before breaking in [to a house].” He believes in G‑d, and not just abstractly. He believes that G‑d sustains all of His creatures and controls their destiny. Indeed, it is because of this faith that he asks G‑d to help him and grant him success, so that he too will have “bread to eat and clothing to wear.”7 What however is he asking for? That when he steals, he shouldn’t be caught in the act! He is not disturbed by the paradox; he can ask G‑d for help while flagrantly defying His will.

This inconsistency is possible because faith is far removed from our ordinary conscious processes and is not internalized within them. Were the faith that radiates within a person’s heart to be integrated within his thought, he would find it impossible to defy G‑d’s will.

But he can defy G‑d’s will, as can we all. Perhaps our inner contradictions will not be as blatant as those of the thief, but we all have levels on which we believe, and others on which we do not.

These plateaus of belief are surely relevant when we speak about Mashiach. When the Rebbe delivered the maamar Basi LeGani in 5711 in which he stated that the mission of our generation was to actually bring about the coming of the Redemption, his listeners certainly believed. But did they?

Mashiach’s revelation is going to come as a result of his influence on the Jewish people — and mankind as a whole — to improve their conduct.8 At that time, to believe that the Rebbe and the hallfull of people listening to him would be able to initiate changes in the world great enough to bring Mashiach would surely have required a level of faith that pushed the boundaries of one’s potential. How many chassidim did the Rebbe have then? What financial resources were at their disposal? From a logical point of view, anyone would have dismissed talk of bringing Mashiach as a dream; attractive perhaps, but utterly unrealistic.

Unrealistic, that is, to anyone but the Rebbe. The Rebbe meant what he said. In his sichos, he continued to talk about Mashiach as a reality, something that he expected to happen. That was revolutionary at that time (and for years afterwards). When would others talk about Mashiach? When a speaker wanted to conclude his talk with a reassuring prophecy. The Rebbe, by contrast, introduced Mashiach as a real factor in our lives, teaching us to see it as the purpose for our existence.

And he didn’t just talk about Mashiach. He set about doing things that would ready the world for Mashiach’s coming and prepare the conceptual framework to recognize it.

To understand how the Rebbe’s focus on Mashiach bridges the gap between faith and reality, we must comprehend the concept of vision and its relation to leadership. A leader is not merely a person who can motivate people; he’s got to have a goal to motivate them towards. And that’s where vision comes in.

Vision means the ability to see a goal that others are capable of seeing, but don’t. We are not speaking of a goal that is beyond people’s comprehension. Were that the case, even if the leader were to spend much time in education, teaching people about the goal to which he would like to inspire them, it would be useless. They would never understand. On the other hand, the leader’s goal cannot be something plainly obvious. For if so, what would the leader’s contribution be?

The goal to which a leader inspires his followers must be something that is readily identifiable and possible, but yet something which requires a change of their accepted conceptual frameworks. And the ability to expand his followers’ perspective in this manner is what makes a person a real leader.

Let’s take as an example the concept of baalei teshuvah. From the very beginning of his nesius, the Rebbe started speaking about the willingness of American Jews from secular backgrounds to discover their Jewish roots. Most people thought the idea was preposterous. At that time, traditional Orthodoxy was on the defensive. In many religious quarters, people were experiencing difficulty maintaining the interest and involvement of their own youth; the idea that others from the outside would join their ranks seemed inconceivable.

What was the problem? Many within traditional Orthodoxy were looking solely at the external dimensions of American society and did not see how a Torah lifestyle could offer the same attractive opportunities as those available in society at large. The Rebbe, by contrast, looked at the core of our people’s soul and the fundamentals truths that the Torah offered. He saw how the meaning, depth, and inner joy of a Torah lifestyle could fill the void American life would create inside the hearts of many.

It was not that the other perspective was wrong; it was simply limited; it did not encompass the entire picture. Because the Rebbe looked deeper into the hearts of people, his vision was able to expand the conceptual frontiers of American Jewry and provide a practical alternative that worked.

A leader is not only a visionary, he is a person who motivates others to embrace his vision and devote themselves to its application. To return to the above example, what is most impressive about the Rebbe’s inspiration of the baal teshuvah movement is not only his ability to understand the spiritual openness of American youth, but his ability to rally a community into acting on that vision, and nurture its acceptance by broad sectors of both the religious and the secular constituencies within the Jewish community. Decades afterwards, the fiercest opponents of the Rebbe’s conception, from both sides of the fence, acknowledge that the baal teshuvah movement was one of the most potent forces in the revitalization of Jewish life in America. This was possible only because during those decades, Lubavitcher chassidim had showed the practical application of the Rebbe’s vision by bringing thousands of Jewish youth and adults to more complete Jewish practice.

A similar paradigm applies with regard to Mashiach. A person in galus cannot have a conception of Geulah; the entire concept is foreign to him. He is so caught up in the day-to-day details of life in galus that he cannot see beyond them.

Reb Peretz Chein was once conducting a farbrengen in Russia. The use of electricity was not yet widespread and the room was lit by candles. As the farbrengen proceeded, the candles’ light became dimmer. The chassidim didn’t pay attention; they were listening intently to Reb Peretz.

Late into the night, another chassid walked in. “Why are you sitting in the dark?” he asked his colleagues.

“We’ve been sitting here so long, we didn’t notice,” they replied.

Reb Peretz suddenly interrupted: “We have the same problem with galus. We’ve been in exile so long, we no longer realize that we’re in exile. We think that this is our only reality.

Why is the possibility of having a foretaste of Redemption such a frequent theme in the Rebbe’s sichos? Becausefor him, that was reality. The Rebbe was never in galus. His spiritual insight enabled him to live with the Geulah, not as a point of faith, but as actual reality.

Such awareness serves as a prod. Appreciating this truth spurs one to spread this understanding to others.

How can we — individuals who lack the Rebbe’s spiritual perception — see the Geulah as a practical goal, not merely an abstract vision?

We can, because the Geulah is the truth of our existence. Our Sages state:9 “The world was created solely for the sake of Mashiach.” This means that the purpose of every element of existence is to reach the level of awareness that will be manifest during the Era of Redemption. And since this is the purpose of every element of existence, there is a point where existence and its purpose will always be able to interrelate. For every entity seeks its purpose and truth will ultimately be realized.

But identifying that point of connection requires a shift of attention. Like the people sitting in the dark room, we have to realize our present situation, and more important, to look beyond our situation and see how we can relate to Mashiach — and do so in a down to earth manner, internalized with our lives, not just as abstract belief.