The Yeshivah of Nevardok was renowned for its teachings of Mussar. In particular, emphasis was placed on thetrait of humility — that a Torah scholar should not take pride in his intellectual achievements. Thus one would frequently find the leading scholars of the institution sitting next to one another and telling the other, Ich bin gornit, “I am nothing.”

One day a newcomer to the yeshivah saw three of the older bachurim sitting and repeating to each other, Ich bin gornit, Ich bin gornit. He didn’t understand, so he asked a friend to explain. The latter expounded on the goals of the yeshivah and explained that this was one of the means employed to reach those ends.

Somewhat unsure of what he was doing, but wanting to acquaint himself with the norms of his new environment, the newcomer sat down next to the others and began saying, Ich bin gornit, Ich bin gornit.

The oldtimers looked at him in shock, and one of them said to the other, “Less than half a day at the yeshivah, and already a gornit?!”

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Humor aside, there is a positive dimension to the oldtimers’ approach, for humility requires cultivation. To be humble, you have to do more than give lip service to the ideal. You’ve got to chip away at your self-concern. And for many, that cannot be accomplished in a single day or night; it requires a lifetime of effort.

Were the newcomer to have felt true, natural humility, he would never have engaged in this rite to begin with. And since humility did not come naturally to him, it is fair to assume that he needed to undergo more serious and involved training for his statements to be genuine.

In the Chassidic movement,a different tack was taken. The Baal Shem Tov taught the scholars who were attracted to his teachings to involve themselves with amcha yidden, the ordinary Jews in the street. On one hand, the intent was that the scholars should teach, for they had knowledge which the common folk were lacking. On the other hand, the intent was that they should learn — that the simple faith and lack of self-pride possessed by the ordinary people should expand the scholar’s spiritual horizons.

To emphasize whose spiritual contribution was more important, the Baal Shem Tov referred to our Sages’ statement:1 “More than the rich person does for the poor, the poor person does for the rich.” The scholars’ contribution to the common people’s spiritual development was significant, but what the common people could do for the scholars was even more important. Genuine feelings that come from the heart (the common man’s contribution) humble a scholar and make him appreciate that much patient work is required before they can be modeled with authenticity. As humility is given the chassidic flavor of bittul, selflessness that stems from an awareness of deeper truth, it penetrates to the core of one’s being.

This concept received special emphasis in the Chabad-Lubavitch thought system. On one hand, Chabad highlights the importance of using one’s mind. And yet, aware that intellectual activity could lead to self-pride, an even greater emphasis has always been placedon bittul, going past the intellectual and opening oneself up to the unbounded spiritual resourcespresent within the heart.

At many a farbrengen, the question has been asked: What was the result of studying the last maamar: more bittul, or more yesh?Did the understanding that you gained inflate your ego? Or did it bring you into connection with the inner spark of G‑dliness that we all possess, and in this way, lead you past self-consciousness?

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How does the above relate to Mashiach?2 Because as the Mashiach campaign spread, some said: “Mashiach is the dearest thing to Chabad and you’re cheapening it. Mashiach is for midnight farbrengens, for the intense study of chassidic thought.It’s not to be publicized and sold like laundry soap or cigarettes. By making it a children’s campaign and opening it up to people who haven’t studied, you’re detracting from what Mashiach means.”

Hearing such objections reminds me of theoldtimers’ complaint: “Less than half a day at the yeshivah, and already a gornit?!” And the reply to such objections is the approach taught by the Baal Shem Tov: “Learn from the simple faith of the ordinary people.”

The Chabad approach has always been to spread the deepest truths to the widest possible audience despite the risk involved. This is an inherent element of the Chabad tradition, beginning from the renowned allegory of the Alter Rebbe3 who taught that the most precious jewel in the king’s crown must be ground into a powder, mixed with liquid, and splashed over the lips of the king’s ailing son in the hope that a drop will enter his mouth and heal him, and continuing in the present day when a Chabad House rabbi will use the deepest secrets of Torah to convince an uncommitted Jew to put on tefillin.

Moreover, this very approach is fundamental to the concept of Mashiach. Mashiach is not for a select group of spiritually refined people atop an ivory tower of holiness. Mashiach is going to motivate change throughout the world, to the extent that “the occupation of the entire world will be solely to know G‑d.”4 Since the rewards in Torah are given “measure for measure,” it follows that the Divine service that precedes Mashiach’s coming must also encompass all existence.

In this vein, the story is told that once in the town of Volozhin, a brawny, charismatic young man awoke one day to the fantasy that he was Mashiach. He was able to convince a few of the town’s idlers of the veracity of his message, and together they went out to herald the coming redemption. Most of the people paid him little attention. There was, however, a small, but significant group of young people who gathered around this man and saw him as their champion.

Once the gentile governor of Volozhin encountered R. Yitzchak of Volozhin, one of the leading scholars of the generation and the spiritual head of the Jewish community in that region. “What do you say about your new Messiah?” the governor asked R. Yitzchak.

“What do you say about him?” R. Yitzchak answered.

“What does it matter what I say? I am not of your faith. But I’d like to know whether, according to your Torah, there is any reason to believe in him.”

“Don’t worry,” R. Yitzchak answered. “When our Mashiach ultimately comes, everyone — Jews and non-Jews — will be able to identify him.”

In a similar vein, the Rebbe would frequently repeat the classic chassidic adage that when Mashiach comes, his arrival will be headline news in the tabloids. At a public address one Sukkos,5 he said that the chassidim will be so busy in their celebration of the holiday that they will not know that Mashiach has come. The local cop on the beat, however, will hear the message on the radio and tell it to the chassidim in the midst of their rejoicing.

Twenty years ago, all of this would have been nice theory and perhaps, even considered fantasy. But in our time, we have seen it as actual fact. There hasn’t been a major newspaper or magazine that hasn’t run features on Mashiach. The chassidim who sought to have the material publicized were often amazed at the ease in which it was accepted.

But it is not only that it is both possible and necessary to reach out to people at large with the concept of Mashiach. It is precisely through extending beyond the academic excellence of chassidic thought and touching children and ordinary people that we can arrive at the truest conception of Mashiach.

Once the Alter Rebbe’s chassidim came to him with a complaint: “Rebbe, we have been praying so hard for Mashiach, and still G‑d has not sent him.”

The Rebbe answered: “Maybe the Mashiach you’re asking for is not the one G‑d wants to send.”

When is that possible? When the people praying are sophisticated, but not when they are children. When a person who is learned prays for Mashiach, he is praying for the manifestation of his intellectual ideal. When a child prays for Mashiach, he is praying for Mashiach.

In 5741, my wife was head-counselor of a day camp in Capetown, South Africa. This was the first year the children had begun singing the song, “We Want Mashiach Now; we don’t want to wait.” My wife turned to one girl who was singing very loudly and asked her: “Who is Mashiach?”

The girl replied: “I don’t know, but I want him to come now.”

When children and ordinary people pray for Mashiach to come, they are not thinking of an idealistic conception at which they arrived in a state of meditative contemplation. Their intent is simple: they want Mashiach to come now. And that desire is truer and more genuine — both in the heart of the requester and in its connection to Mashiach’s identity — than the abstract conception of the scholar.

Now, the simple desire for Mashiach’s coming may arouse apprehension in the eyes of some. There is a natural tendency to hope that tomorrow will be the same as yesterday and to want a slight improvement in our personal situation, but for there to be no radical changes. When Mashiach is an abstract concept, no one feels threatened. After all, everyone is entitled to his philosophies. But when someone speaks about Mashiach in earnest, with simple belief that Mashiach is actually coming, that begins to rock the boat. “I have no problem believing in Mashiach,” many will say. “But why must you say he is coming now?”

Why is it so hard for them to believe that Mashiach could actually come today? Because believing would jar their everyday reality, and that they are not prepared to do.

In the first weeks after asking his chassidim to “Do all you can to bring Mashiach,” the Rebbe addressed himself6 to this issue. He explained that the coming of Mashiach did not mean losing what we have now. “A person will worry,” the Rebbe said, “’I have spent my entire life building up a business, making friends, etc., and now when Mashiach comes all this will be for naught.’

“There is no need to be intimidated by Mashiach’s coming,” the Rebbe explained. “Mashiach’s contribution will be to transform golah (גולה, “exile”) into Geulah, (גאולה, “Redemption”).7 This will be accomplished, not by destroying anything in galus, but rather by drawing down the alef, which stands for the Ein Sof, G‑d’s infinity, and revealing its presence in every dimension of our experience.”

The Rebbe was speaking at a Shabbos farbrengen, to a gathering of his close followers, and yet he felt it necessary to emphasize that there is no need for apprehension, that Mashiach will not destroy any of the good we have at present. For in each of us, there is a certain reluctance to face an unknown future.

Perhaps because they’re somewhat reckless and uncontrolled, children lack such reluctance. If they know something is good and valuable, they are prepared to make any sacrifice to attain it.

Yeshayahu’s vision8 of the Era of the Redemption speaks about idyllic peace: “The wolf will dwell with the lamb; the leopard will lie down with the goat,” and he concludes: “a tender youth will lead them.” As we seek to make Mashiach actual reality and not just a dream, the openness and simple faith of “tender youth” must “lead,” for these are the most necessary qualities in the endeavor to transform the Geulah from an abstract ideal to hard fact.