Behold, a ladder stood on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, angels of G‑d were ascending and descending on it

(Genesis 28:12)

What motivates you? Why do you do what you do?

Do you wake up in the morning, go to work, are considerate to your spouse, patient with your children and nice to your neighbors because you are forced to? Because society rewards such behavior? Because you want to? Because you can't imagine acting otherwise?

A close examination of our actions in the course of the day and the motivations that drive them would probably reveal elements of all of the above. But are these random influences, or is there some sort of order and hierarchy to them? And if there is, in what order are they aligned? And where is your life and psyche headed — is it advancing up the ladder or sliding down the stairwell?

According to the ancient mystics, all actions of man — indeed all workings of creation — derive from two general forces: love and awe. More specifically, there are two types of love: "lower love" and "higher love." And two forms of awe — "lower awe" and "higher awe".

"Lower awe" is the lowest of the four on the ladder of human motivations. A step above that is "lower love". Then comes "higher love". Finally, "higher awe" is the highest level a human being can reach.

[This hierarchy is alluded to in the verse, "And these are the chronicles of Isaac the son of Abraham; Abraham gave birth to Isaac" (Genesis 25:19). According to the Kabbalists, Abraham was the embodiment of the attribute of love, while Isaac embodied awe. The verse repeats itself, signifying that there is a lower and higher Abraham, as well as a lower and a higher Isaac. And the order in which their names appear is: Isaac, Abraham, Abraham, Isaac; in other words — awe, love, love, awe.]

"Lower awe" is fear. When we keep our hands out of the cookie jar because we'll be punished if we're caught, when we follow the rules at work to avoid being fired and having our spouse yell at us and call us a good-for-nothing, when we obey G‑d's laws out of fear of divine retribution in the afterlife — we're acting out of fear. We're operating on the lowest rung of human virtue — lower awe (which is still a whole lot higher than human iniquity).

A step above that is "lower love" — the impulse to do something because we receive something positive in return. Every day, we do countless things — including things that require a great degree of effort and toil — because these things bring us physical pleasure, emotional joy, intellectual stimulation, peace of mind or spiritual fulfillment. Yes, we're acting "selfishly", but we're also giving of ourselves, willingly and freely rather than compulsively, and often we're giving up something immediate and tangible for the sake of something more ethereal. On the whole, it's a self-expanding experience, rather than the self-constricting fear of "lower awe".

"Higher love" is altruistic love — when we give of ourselves out of a pure desire to give. For while it is true that we are driven by a core impulse for self-preservation and self-enhancement, we also posses a higher self, a soul that is "a spark of G‑dliness" whose core desire is to give rather than take, to serve rather than receive. Whenever we find ourselves motivated to pursue truth simply because it is true, to do goodness for no reason other than that it is good, that is our G‑dly self asserting itself over our selfish self, a flash of our divine spark peeking through the veil of "lower love" that dominates so much of our psyche and personality.

But there is something that is even higher than "higher love". Higher love is when we do something because we want to; "higher awe" is when we do something because we are in touch with something greater than ourselves and our desires. Watch a tzaddik praying to G‑d, a soldier sacrificing his very life to protect his people, a parent interacting with her child. There is something here that's beyond selfishness or selflessness — beyond the self and its need to receive or to give. It is something that occurs when the self is awed by something that is infinitely greater than itself, and submits to it not because it is forced to, or enticed to, or even wants to, but because its finite self has become part of the Infinite.

The endeavor of what we call "life" is to ascend this ladder, to climb these four rungs of transcendence. Climbing the ladder doesn't mean that we'll attain a state in which everything we do is on the highest of the four planes; nor does it mean that we'll leave the lower levels behind us as we ascend to the ones above it: there will always be things that we do out of fear, out of love of self, out of altruistic desire, and out of sublime awe. Ascending the ladder means being aware of these four levels, aware of their relationship vis-a-vis each other, knowing which way is up and which way is down, and always striving upwards.