What is the difference between a rabbi and a Rebbe? I have been reading up on the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson and he was obviously a great man. But what made him a Rebbe and not a regular rabbi?
There are many differences, too many to list here, but one is this: A rabbi answers questions, a Rebbe answers people. A rabbi hears what you say with your mouth, a Rebbe hears what you are saying with your soul.
I'll explain what I mean.
A teenage boy once asked the Rebbe, "Do we believe in reincarnation?"
The Rebbe's answer was short and cryptic:
"Yes we do believe in reincarnation. But don't wait until then."
This seems a puzzling response. Wait until when? The boy asked a simple enough question, which could be answered with a yes or no. What did the Rebbe mean by "don't wait until then"?
I think the Rebbe was responding to something more than the technical question. The Rebbe knew how to answer the person, not the question. Most of us respond to a question posed to us. The Rebbe would respond to the person behind the question. With his insight he would identify where the question was coming from and address the underlying issue rather than just the one presented.
When this boy asked about reincarnation, he was not asking about the abstract theological concept. He wanted to know if this lifetime is all there is, or if there is more. The possibility of reincarnation changes the way we look at life. We were here before, and so some of the events that happen to us now may be leftovers from a previous life. And we may live again, which means that we get another chance to complete unfinished business from this lifetime in the next.
This seems to be what the Rebbe was warning the young boy. Reincarnation doesn't mean procrastination. Don't use it as an excuse to put off to your next life what you need to achieve in this life. Indeed we believe in the re-embodiment of the soul, which means we believe in second chances. But maybe this life is the second chance. Don't leave it to next time.
This is the power of a Rebbe. A regular rabbi, when asked such a question, would start quoting mystical sources and explaining complex doctrines. But the Rebbe, in a ten second exchange with a teenage boy, taught a practical and comprehensive worldview. Live this lifetime as if it's your last. You may have past lives, and you may have future lives, but don't wait until then. Do it now.
Please see Why the Big Picture of the Rebbe in your Home from the selection on the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory.