Fires were a serious problem in the shtetl. Most of the buildings were made from thin, flammable wood and were positioned very close to one another. If one caught fire, the neighboring house would also be very likely to go up in flames. In a very brief amount of time, an entire neighborhood or village could be reduced to ashes.

Town planners were very concerned with the issue and would frequently attempt to find different solutions for the problem. In one small village, a special team of horses was trained to serve with the fire brigade. If a fire were to break out, these horses would supposedly charge into the blaze pulling a wagon of firefighters who would rescue survivors and do what they could to extinguish the blaze.

To keep the horses fit and prepared for this special mission, they were given the best hay and feed, and a spacious corral in which to exercise.

Thank G‑d, fires were not a frequent occurrence. For many years, the horses of the fire brigade would cavort in their corral or be used to parade in a procession for ceremonial village functions. All in all, they had little to do and there was some talk that maintaining them was an unnecessary expense. Their exponents, on the other hand, would say: “But what if a fire does break out?” To garner a feeling of security in the face of this danger, the villagers agreed to continue supporting the horses’ upkeep.

Then one day a fire did break out. The fire brigade sprung into action. They placed ample supplies of water on the wagon and hitched the horses to it. They sped to the scene of the blaze and gave the order for the horses to plunge into the fire. As soon as the horses approached the blaze, however, they turned back; even a horse knows when its life is in danger.

Luckily, the blaze did not spread very far. There were stone structures on either side of the building that had caught fire, so only one house was lost. No one was killed. The adherents of the fire brigade, however, had to agree that their theory was untenable. No matter how much training they would be given, horses will not charge into fire. And so, on the next day, the horses of the fire brigade were sold.

One of the youngboys in town had come to enjoy watching these fine steeds practice. He asked his father why they were being sold. “They did not charge into the fire,” his father answered.

“But no horse will,” his son responded. “Why blame them for behaving naturally?”

“Their entire purpose was not to respond naturally,” the father continued. “For that they were fed differently and trained differently. If all we need are ordinary horses, then there are many available.”

Reb Mendel Futerfas would tell this story to illustrate the unique avodah demanded of a yeshivah student in Lubavitch — how his training and the expectations of him are entirely different from those of other yeshivah students. Other yeshivah students are trained to study the Torah and observe mitzvos; that’s what’s expected of them.

A Lubavitcher is trained for mesirus nefesh, that he should devote himself to a goal above his personal interests or desires and that the advancement of the Torah and its mitzvos should be the focus of his life. This commitment should be such an integral part of his being, that if spreading the Torah and its mitzvos requires him to sacrifice some of his own comforts and desires, he would be willing to do that also. If, however, a Lubavitcher yeshivah produces a student who simply studies the Torah and observes the mitzvos, it would feel as if it has failed. The unique purpose which it set out to achieve was not accomplished.

In a larger sense, the goals and aspirations of Lubavitch are centered around the concepts of Rebbe and Mashiach. A Lubavitcher does not only “sacrifice himself for the Torah and its mitzvos”; he lives to bring Mashiach, to prepare a setting where the truths the Rebbe teaches will spread throughout the world at large, revealing how in fact this world is G‑d’s dwelling.

For years, this was an abstract truth — albeit an abstract truth that was applied in deed. On the basis of these abstracts, young couples left the familiar settings in which they grew up and spread out throughout the U.S. — and indeed, the entire world — to give others an opportunity to be exposed to these truths. And because they were truths, people responded, creating a tidal wave of Jewish activism that revolutionized not only Lubavitch, but the entire Jewish community. Nevertheless, in all of these efforts, Mashiach was not considered an immediate goal. It was a subject discussed and even highlighted, but it was in the background.

Lubavitch was dedicated to reaching out to every Jew and connecting him to his Torah roots. It was active in spreading pnimiyus HaTorah, the Torah’s mystic gems, throughout the world. And there were a vast number of other activities, including establishing and running Chabad Houses, Jewish schools, publishing Jewish books, checking mezuzos, and the like, carried out by different branches of the Lubavitch movement. At the heart of all these activities was the desire to spread the Rebbe’s truths and bring Mashiach, but these were underlying motivations. Each activity had a clear and direct purpose that someone who was not sensitive to or knowledgeable about Mashiach could identify with.

And then one day, it all changed. The Rebbe told the fire brigade to charge.

It is hard to view recent history with objectivity. On the contrary, the ability to sit back and reflect on issues and events with detached contemplation is fundamental to any historical analysis, and that is very hard when you feel personally involved. Now, in the last decade or so in Lubavitch, there are several dates which make all of us feel personally involved. Some of these occasions (e.g., Hei Teves) are happy, and there are others whose positive dimension is yet to be revealed. Among these dates, the eve of the 28th of Nissan, 5751, stands out prominently. For that day served as a turning point, radically changing what we expect of the Rebbeand what the Rebbe expects of us.

It was a Thursday evening. The Rebbe returned from the ohel late and davened Minchah, and then Maariv. Afterwards, he began delivering a sichah which, at the outset, appeared to resemble many other sichos. He spoke about the unique nature of the year, a year whose numerical equivalent serves as an acronym for the verse, “I will show you wonders,” and the potential of the month, as “the month of Redemption.” He explained the numerical equivalence of the dates 27 (זך, “pure”) and 28 (כח, “power”) and their connection to the Redemption. He continued to associate this theme with the import of the subsequent days and the days of the Counting of the Omer.1

Suddenly, his tone changed. The detailed, scholarly discussion came to an end, and in tones of intense clarity, the Rebbe turned to the chassidim gathered in 770 and began addressing them in the second person:

Even when people cry out Ad masai? (“Until when will we remain in galus?”), they do so only because they were told to. If their intent was sincere and their desire earnest... Mashiach would surely have already come.

What more can I do to motivate the entire Jewish people to clamor, and to cry out, and thus actually bring about the coming of Mashiach?...We are still in exile; moreover, we are in an inner exile with regard to our own Divine service.

All that I can possibly do is give the matter over to you. Now do everything you can to bring Mashiach, here and now, immediately....

I have done whatever I can; from now on, you must do whatever you can.

From that evening on, the lives of everyone connected with Lubavitch changed. Things were not and would never be the same as before.

The ripples spread beyond Lubavitch; suddenly the world as a whole became preoccupied with Mashiach. Whether or not we were ready for it, the Geulah became part of our lexicon. When the left-wing Prime Minister of Israel was trying to deal with the labor problems of his country, he told his Cabinet: “We cannot let the unemployment situation flounder until the Rebbe of Chabad brings the Redemption.”

But the Rebbe didn’t only want people to start talking about the Geulah, he wanted the Geulah to actually happen. That’s what he demanded from his people.

Faced with this challenge, there were many who tried to shift the burden back to the Rebbe. But he refused to accept it. On the Shabbos following the sichah cited above, many of the chassidim asked him to take up the mantle of Mashiach, but the Rebbe demurred. In the months that followed, this scenario repeated itself not once, but several times. The chassidim asked the Rebbe to reveal himself as Mashiach, and the Rebbe told the chassidim that bringing Mashiach was their responsibility.

On the verse,2 “Bring us back to You, O G‑d, and we shall return,” the Midrash comments:3

Israel says to G‑d: “The initiative must be Yours, as it is written, ‘Bring us back to You, O G‑d, and we shall return.’”

G‑d replies: “It is you who must begin, as it is written,4 “Return to Me and I will return to you.”

When Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev was studying this Midrash with his chassidim, he exclaimed: “Is it because of a petty debate over who goes first that the galus has been prolonged for so long?”

The same question can be asked here. Why was there a give and take between the Rebbe and the chassidim?

We can’t know the full intent of the Rebbe’s words. But they were very plain and direct: he wanted his chassidim — as a group and as individuals — to make bringing the Redemption their personal concern.

On the verse,5 “And Mordechai told [Esther’s messenger] what had happened to him,” the Rebbe has frequently explained that Mordechai’s uniqueness was that he saw Haman’s decree on the Jewish people as “happening to him.” The decree was general in nature, applying to the Jews as a whole; Mordechai was not mentioned personally. It would have been easy for him to say, “Esther is in the palace. She will protect me,” and go about his life as usual.

But he didn’t. He understood that it was “happening to him,” and began taking action.

There is an old chassidic analogy that goes like this: Two people were looking intently at a ledger. One was asking questions, and the other was explaining. After several minutes of explanation, the person asking the questions fainted.

What had happened? The two people were the owner of a business and his accountant. It had been a rough year, and the accountant was trying to explain to the owner that the business was no longer solvent. At first, the owner objected, then he asked questions, and when he understood, he fainted.

In the transition to the analogue, the question is asked: Why didn’t the accountant faint? If the problem was real, and he understood it better than the owner, he too should have fainted.

The answer is obvious. The accountant was no more than a paid professional; he had no emotional connection to the business. As for the owner, it was his livelihood.

This is what the Rebbe wanted from the chassidim: that each one should consider bringing the Geulah his private concern, one that he is deeply involved with. And he wanted this to involve as many people as possible, because to borrow an old 60’s expression: If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. Conversely, the more people see themselves as part of the solution, the faster the problem, galus, will be eradicated.

Why then did the chassidim try to shift the burden back to the Rebbe? It’s hard to attribute everything to a lack of initiative or to laziness. Yes, for everyone, it takes a little effort to overcome inertia, but after hearing the intensity of the Rebbe’s call, the chassidim had been shaken from their inertia. Something much deeper was involved.

The chassidim knew that the Geulah is the Rebbe’s inyan. He is the one to make it happen.

In Poland, once after a Rebbe passed away, his chassidim came to his gabbai, asking him to assume the position. The gabbai refused, telling the chassidim: “If you’re in the army and you need a rifle, you don’t take a broom.”6

The Geulah means an all-encompassing awareness of G‑d. And to make that happen in the world at large, you have to possess such an awareness yourself.7 To refer back to the analogy of the Koznitzer Maggid stated above, to help the people in the dungeon develop a new understanding, you have to come from the outside. Looking honestly at themselves, the chassidim realized that this was beyond them. And so they asked the Rebbe.

Why didn’t the Rebbe simply say yes? Because he didn’t want this effort to be his private undertaking. Or more specifically, he wanted to share what is really his private undertaking with the Jewish people as a whole.

When the Jewish people were challenged by Amalek after the splitting of the Red Sea, Moshe tells Yehoshua, Bechar lanu anashim, “Choose men for us.” Mashpiim would ask, why does it say lanu, “for us”? They would answer that Moshe wanted Yehoshua to select people who identified with them. They would be anshei Moshe, Moshe’s people, individuals who live their lives in touch with him.

Chassidus8 identifies Amalek with doubt and coldness, the hesitation to rouse oneself even when one appreciates that an objective is correct. To go out of the safety of the Clouds of Glory and battle Amalek requires deeper strength than most people appear to possess. But when a person makes an unrestrained commitment to carry through Moshe’s ambitions, Moshe empowers the person to uncover new resources of strength that he could not summon up on his own. These are the anshei Moshe who can confront Amalek.

There is no question that the Geulah is the Rebbe’s inyan, but he gave us the potential to internalize it and make it our inyan as well. When we make a commitment to the Rebbe, in heart and also in mind, this opens us up to a greater power. We can feel that something much greater than ourselves is working through us. And then the gabbai’s analogy transforms into another old Yiddish expression, “When G‑d wants, even a broom can shoot.”

This approach — dedicating our energies to the Rebbe’s purpose, and utilizing the energy with which he empowers us — is more than a catalyst that will bring about the Redemption, it is a microcosm of what the Redemption will achieve. For the Redemption involves a person retaining his own character, and yet taking on a new identity, realizing how he and the world around him are expressions of G‑d. As more and more people begin anticipating the Redemption in this manner, anticipation will no longer be necessary, for the Redemption will become a reality.