Escapism Or Realism?
"Doesn't the belief in and talk about the imminence of Moshiach's coming detach people from reality, causing them to behave irrationally and irresponsibly, and, in some extreme cases, to completely abdicate their responsibilities?"
Firstly, it must be repeatedly stressed that belief in Moshiach is totally realistic. It is Golus which is the dream.31 This is explained in the famous parable of a second generation of people who had been thrown into a dungeon, and now believe that their dark world is all there is.
Secondly, our belief in Moshiach teaches that nothing will change (except for our attitudes and perceptions) to invalidate our present actions.32 If Moshiach is continuity, emphasis on Moshiach will just encourage us to continue with all of our positive activities.
Thirdly, the reason there will be no disruptive changes is because the whole concept of Moshiach is to reveal the true inner meaning of Golus.33 The Messianic Era will not bring a new world, but the revelation of what our old world was really like. We will appreciate more not less, our accomplishments of today. If anything, the awareness of Moshiach motivates us to do more now, so that we will have more to appreciate when the time comes.
Fourthly, from a halachic vantage point, Moshiach will help us see the viability of halacha. There will be no obstruction to the implementation of halacha.34 Accordingly, we prepare for Moshiach by being more conscientious about halacha, not less.
In reality, a mature belief in Moshiach is the belief that Torah directs the world, and that when Moshiach arrives this will clearly be seen. Even now we must endeavor to implement the dictates of halacha in our daily lives.
Fifthly, every Jewish child knows that belief in Moshiach has always gone hand in hand with preparation for Moshiach, which means living our lives in the fullest, most wholesome, responsible way.
In summation, the question itself, asked by religious and non-religious Jews alike, is further proof of the phenomenon of pre-conceived images of what Moshiach is. These perceptions are based on the exposure many Jews have had to patently non-Jewish, even pagan, notions of Moshiach. In Judaism, Moshiach is not going to liberate us from responsibility; he will liberate us from the obstacles to responsibility that presently exist.
31. See Hisv'adiyos 5744, vol. Ill, p. 2210ff.
32. Hilchos Melachim 12:1-2.
33. See Sefer HaSichos 5751, vol. II, pp. 494-519.
34. Hilchos Melachim11:1.