Judah the son of Teima would say: "... run like a gazelle ... to do the will of your Father in Heaven."

Ethics of the Fathers, 5:20

The gazelle is unique in that when he runs, he turns his head back to the place from which he is running

Zohar II, 14a

The Talmud1 tells of "four who entered the orchard," that is, embarked on a quest for mystical knowledge of G‑d: Ben-Azai, Ben-Zoma, Elisha ben Avuyah and Rabbi Akivah. For the first three, the "trip" ended in disaster: Ben-Azai died, Ben-Zoma lost his sanity, Elisha ben Avuyah became an apostate. Only Rabbi Akivah, "entered in peace, and emerged in peace."2

Chassidic teaching3 explains: Because Rabbi Akivah entered in peace, he emerged in peace. The others did not "enter in peace": in their ecstasy, they lost sight of the axiom that "the Torah was given to make peace in the world,"4 that our purpose in life is to reconcile the material existence with its Creator. Their souls soared with the thrill of spiritual discovery, but, not having serviced their "landing gear" upon take-off, disappeared into the blue yonder, or crashed. Only Rabbi Akivah, who embarked on his mystical journey with a firm vision of the divine peace, was able to return, intact in body and soul, to apply the sublime truths he gained to the harmonious endeavor of life.

This is the deeper significance of Judah ben Teima's directive to "run like a gazelle... to do the will of your Father in Heaven." An important part of our service of G‑d is to be driven with the desire to escape one's material trappings, to strive to transcend all that obscures and conceals the divine truth. Paradoxically, only one who is constantly running away from the world is in a position to influence it and elevate it: one who has grown comfortable with his material existence, one who is himself entrenched in the status quo, is neither motivated, nor able, to change it. Only the soul who walks as a stranger upon earth, who yearns for a higher mode of being, has the vision and power to wrest it from its state of disattachment from and conflict with its Creator.

Run the soul must, but it must run as a gazelle, with "his head back to the place from which he is running." Our yen for transcendence must always be with an eye to the material reality we are fleeing, with the knowledge that the purpose of every escape to the heavens is a return to earth.

Based on the Rebbe's notes for an address he delivered on Sukkot of 19315