(The first part of this post is condensed from a d'var Torah given by R' Dani Rapp a few hours ago.)
Jews are obligated to expect the coming of the Moshiach (Messiah) at any time, even today. This is true to the extent that the rabbis of the Talmud stated that any Jew who denied the possibility of the Moshiach coming would lose his share in the World to Come.
Yet we find that in practice, almost everybody does the exact opposite. Indeed, "when Moshiach comes" has become a near synonym for "never," as in: "The Cubs winning the World Series? When Moshiach comes!" This is understandible after three thousand years, but that is still no excuse. We need to take our intellectual acceptance of the Moshiach and infuse it into our daily lives, and thus perhaps bring about the Messianic Age more quickly.
But there is a passage from the Talmud that seems to dispute this idea. (If I remember correctly, it is in Tractate Chullin.) It more or less reads as follows: "The son of David will not arrive until the whole world has despaired of his coming."
How can such a thing be? Could we really be prolonging the Exile by hoping that it will end? Can this really be telling us that we should accept the Exile and give up hope?
R' Yaakov Kaminetzky interprets the passage in the following way. He believes that it parallels the experience of the first Redemtion, the exodus from Egypt (which is said to be the prototype for all subsequent persecutions and redemptions). Remember that God appeared to Moses and commanded him to approach Pharoh and ask for the Bnei Yisrael's (Children of Israel's) freedom. Yet when Moses did so, not only did Pharoh refuse to free the Bnei Yisrael, he increased the labor to which they were subjected. The leaders complained to Moses and asked why he had come at all, since all he did was to make the situation worse.
R' Yaakov asks: why did God need for this to happen? Why not simply begin the Plagues immediately and force Pharoh to acquiesce? Why did God need for the Bnei Yisrael to suffer more?
He answers that before this happened, some among the Bnei Yisrael felt that it was possible to end the period of slavery through normal political means. If someone could approach Pharoh and explain to him the ways in which freeing the Bnei Yisrael would be beneficial to him, then Pharoh would see reason and the situation would be resolved. God needed to demonstrate that such a "normal" approach would not work, that there was no hope for freedom within the normal way of doing things. The only way that Israel could possibly be saved was through the intervention of God Himself.
Similarly, many people believe that the world can be perfected through normal human means: through philanthropy, or universal brotherhood, or whatever. R' Yaakov says that so long as people believe this, then the Redemption will not take place. It is only once the whole world realizes that true perfection is beyond the ability of humanity, and can only come about through God's hand, that the Moshiach will indeed come.
(Thus far the words of R' Dani Rapp.)
Many people today try to implement Utopian systems in the hopes of bringing about universal happiness. The United Nations was meant to end all war, Communism was meant to end all class conflict and poverty, and so on. Yet people do not realize that we cannot create a perfect system, and that any attempt will have intrinsic flaws which may be worse than what is being replaced. Even capitalism, which I continue to believe is far and away the best we can come up with for now, brings with it the suffering of the poor; and it exacts from the rest of us a constant mental strain that focuses our thoughts on the material, to the detriment of the spiritual.
And yet people persist in trying to find the perfect system. Granted, it is clearly possible to improve the world, and the world today is much better than it was in centuries past. But true perfection is beyond us. Defenders of capitalism too have fallen into the trap, by belittling the valid concerns of their adversaries that the poor are being neglected, and that the culture is being degraded.
But "Man cannot live on bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Eternal One." We must, as a culture, truly accept that materialism will only take us so far. One cannot be a complete person, and a society cannot become a healthy society, unless attention is paid to the spiritual as well. If we accept that we cannot become perfect on our own, and instead try to become better, than the world will truly be ready for the Messianic Age.