What is the role of a Rebbe in this context? If such comparison be permissible, it would seem to be that of a "chief street-lamplighter."
Every Jew has the "soul of man that is a lamp of G-d," though there are some among them that wait until it be lit for them. That is the function of the nesi'ey Yisrael (the leaders of Israel; the Rebbes): to light the Divine lamp in every Jew. Just as in the menorah there are seven different branches, so, too, there are seven different groups of Jews, each with its own peculiar traits, needs and approach. The Rebbe's role is to light them all.
In a similar, though differently worded way, the Rebbe once answered a group of students that had asked him this very question:
The Jewish people are referred as eretz cheifetz (a land of delight; or a land of treasure; Malachi 3:12). In the earth lie concealed many treasures, but they are not visible on the surface and one must dig deeply in order to find them. However, not everyone knows the right places where to dig for them. Some explore and in the end find only swampy waters and mire, as happened, for example, to Dr. Freud when he delved into the labyrinth of man's psyche. Others again wind up with nothi ng but rocks, as happened, for example, to Dr. Adler who found but a striving for superiority directed toward strength and dominance. Only an expert knows where to dig so as to find the truly precious treasures: silver signifying love of G-d; gold signifying reverence of G-d; and diamonds which allude to the essence-faith. To find these treasures, that is the task of a Rebbe.
The role of a Rebbe, then, is that of a soul-geologist who manifests the latent powers and treasures concealed in all, who seeks to awaken in everyone the potential he has. He is the generator that charges and a beacon that guides, in whom all the above is succinctly crystallized. His role as mentor and counselor, whose advice and blessing is sought in matters spiritual and material, is seen in the same context: the context of responsibility toward his people.
When asked how he can possibly reply to the multifarious concerns ranging from questions of theology and metaphysics to family- and business-affairs, the Rebbe replied that, for one thing, he is not afraid to answer I do not know. But above all, if I do know, then I have no right not to answer. When someone comes to you for help and you can help him to the best of your knowledge, and you refuse him this help, then you also become a cause of his suffering.
(This, too, reflects classic Chassidic thought, i.e., the original teachings of the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid of Mezhirech: they refer to the Patriarchs as models from whom we are to learn not to rely on faith and tradition alone. Thus we refer in the Amidah to "G-d of Abraham, G-d of Isaac, and G-d of Jacob," and do not compound all three together. This is to teach us that Isaac did not rely on the tradition of Abraham alone, nor did Jacob simply rely on the heritage from his predecessors. Each exerted himself to understand his heritage so as to arrive at his own knowledge and beliefs through personal labour and efforts. Thus Isaac did not simply follow the "G-d of Abraham" but made Him his own, "G-d of Isaac," and likewise with Jacob.)
Thus, even while the Rebbe's role is central, at no times should his presence give rise to some form of personality-cult. Chassidim are not to rely for themselves on the Rebbe's efforts. Chabad-Chassidism in particular demands that a Jew attain all positive qualities by means of personal effort. One must not be content even with natural goodness, i.e., with that which comes to man naturally and easily. Everyone must exert himself in the service of G-d, both physically as well as spiritually, as it is written, "Man is born to toil" (Job 5:7).
The objective of every individual must be to act and to actualize. Moreover, one should not simply act, but do so with the effort which the Torah refers to as amal (toil). Only then does man raise himself from the level of adam (man) "dust from the adamah (ground; earth)" (Genesis 2:7) to the level of adam "edameh (I shall be like) the Most High)" (Isaiah 14:14), as it were.
(An etymological interpretation of adam, frequent in mystical literature. Shenei Luchot Haberit, Toldot Adam (ed. Jerusalem 1963, vol. I:p. 3b): "When man attaches himself to Above and likens himself unto Him, blessed be He, by walking in His paths (see Deuteronomy 13:5, and Shabbat 133b), he is then called by the essential name adam which is an idiom of edameh le'Elyon (Isaiah 14:14). But if he separates himself from the attachment, he is then called adam in relation to adamah (ground; soil) from which he was taken (see Bereishit Rabba 17:4) - dust he is and unto dust he shall return. The principal purpose, however, is for the term adam to indicate edameh le'Elyon."
"The name adam originally indicated edameh le'Elyon; but after Adam sinned, it indicates the earthly character of `dust from the ground." Adam is the highest designation of man.)
As the Rebbe proclaimed the day he assumed leadership:
Chabad has always demanded that everyone must act himself, and not to depend on the Rebbes.
(This fundamental principle of Chabad-Chassidism, demanding personal effort and achievement as opposed to reliance on the Rebbe-Tzadik, is one of the major differences between Chabad-Chassidism and the Chassidic schools classified as Chagat (acronym for Chessed-Gevurah- Tiferet the basic emotive traits) Chassidism (colloquially often referred to as `Polish Chassidism'). The latter adopted the principle of "The tzadik.. yichyeh by his faith' (Habakuk 2:4) do not read yichyeh (lives), but yechayeh (animates; bestows life and vitality)."
See Likutei Diburim, vol. I:p. 282. See also the extensive correspondence between R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi and R. Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev on the one hand, and R. Abraham of Kalisk on the other, in Igarot Ba'al Hatanya Ubnei Doro, D. Hilman, Jerusalem 1953, nos. 58-59, 100, and 102-103.)
Thus all of us need to act personally, with the 248 limbs and 365 veins of the body and the 248 `limbs' and 365 `veins' of the soul. Each one must convert the folly of the `opposing side' and the vehemence of the animal soul to holiness.
Moses could have built the sanctuary all by himself, but he wished for all Jews to have the merit of participating. Thus it is self-evident that in fulfilling our duty to establish an Abode for Divinity here on earth, all of us, and all Jews, must partake. Everyone must act himself and carry out his mission.
In a paraphrase of the maxim that "everything depends on the will," the Rebbe states:
"It is not we who count - we with our weaknesses and limited capacities. It is our will to do a task that we realize is important. Success is not in our hands, it is G-d's. But we have to will to do what He demands of us, and in that will all our weaknesses and insufficiencies wane and become insignificant."
This statement may be taken as a succinct synopsis of the Rebbe's approach and attitude, reflecting his ever-recurring theme that "hama'aseh hu ha'ikkar - action, actual doing, is the essential thing!"