The Talmud relates:
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi asked Moshiach: “When are you coming?”
Replied Moshiach, “Today”.
Later, Rabbi Yehoshua met Elijah the Prophet and complained: “He told me that he is coming today, yet he didn’t come.” Answered Elijah, “This is what he meant: ‘Today, if His voice you will harken.'”
What is the meaning of this seemingly evasive and misleading statement? Does Moshiach engage in diplomatic wordplay?
But Moshiach is conveying an attitude: The Jew knows that the world is inherently good, that the true, intrinsic state of G-d’s creation is the perfect world of Moshiach. He knows that the currently deficient ‘reality’ is superimposed and unnatural. The fact that things have been this way for thousands of years makes it no more genuine or real.
So despite centuries of ‘experience’ to the contrary, The Jew fully and realistically expects Moshiach instantaneously. His response to the question “When is Moshiach coming?” is an unhesitent “Today!” Only if, G-d forbid, a moment passes and somehow Moshiach has not arrived, is he compelled to explain “… if His voice you will harken.” Namely, that G-d desires that the world undergo a process of refinement and elevation before its true, quintessential reality may come to light.
Someone once asked the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn: “We are told to stand ready to receive Moshiach, confident that he is indeed coming immediately. Yet at the same time, we are charged with the mission to improve the world. Which state of mind is one to adopt, that of the anticipant believer or that of the pragmatic doer?”
Indeed, the Jew must straddle both worlds. He must adopt two diverse mind-sets side by side. On the one hand, he must bring holiness to a mundane world by working to perfect an imperfect “reality”. In doing this, he deals with conditions as they are. So he formulates budgets, contracts for construction, and plans long-term projects.
At the same time, he anticipates, nay expects, Moshiach’s immediate coming. An instantaneously perfect existence is not only feasible but the most natural thing in the world.