Everything in creation is meant to thrive in its own environment: Fish live in water, plants live in soil, animals must breathe air. The environment in which a human being thrives is modesty.

But modesty is not so simple. A human being can be modest on three levels: externally, internally, and essentially.

External modesty means your manner of dress, speech, and action, what we usually think of as simple modesty.

Internal modesty means the containment of your inner thoughts and feelings, what we usually call privacy.

Essential modesty is innocence.

On Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the year, at the holiest moment of the prayers, there is a poetic description sung of the High Priest in the Temple in Jerusalem. His countenance is described as he would emerge from the Holy of Holies, "like a rainbow in the skies, like a rose in a garden, like the grace that shines on the face of a bride groom."

Now, not every bridegroom is beautiful. Why describe the special look on the face of the High Priest as that of a groom? Because a bridegroom who is modest in the way that he is supposed to be—externally, internally, and essentially—reveals his innocence.

That's the object of all modesty: to bring you into contact with your essence, the part of you that is innocent.

Jewish mysticism often speaks of sets of three, and these sets always mean there is an external level, an internal level, and an essential level. Take, for example, the three parts of the soul: The external part is the behavior of the soul—your thoughts, speech, and actions—also referred to in philosophy as the "garments of the soul." The internal part is the psyche—your mind and emotions—called the "powers of the soul." The essential part is the spark of G‑d that is within the soul, the "essence of the soul."

There are also three levels at which we exist as human beings. The external level is the part that's acquired—your habits, customs, behavior, and tastes. These correspond to the garments of the soul. The internal level is the part that's on the inside, the aspect of your personality that's independent of your environment, that makes you really you. The essential level is the part of you that is also part of G‑d.

Your external part changes readily, because its nature is to be vulnerable to influence. You acquire your external being from the outside, so it can be determined by your environment. If you lived in a different society, for example, you would probably dress differently, have different tastes, and hold different opinions.

Your external being is your interactive dimension—how you are affected by other people. The dimension that is on the outside is meant to be that way; other people are supposed to have an effect on you. If the part of you that's supposed to be there for other people were closed, you would have a problem; if no part of you were vulnerable, you wouldn't be human. A certain amount of vulnerability is necessary to be able to function as a human being.

The external part of your being is not "the real you." The fact that you enjoy going to the theater, or buying shoes, or eating fish does not define your inner self. Tomorrow you could choose never to see another play, wear another shoe, or eat another piece of salmon again and you would still be "you."

It is your internal being that is comprised of the traits that make you, "you"--no matter when, how, or where you live, no matter what your environment. If it's your nature to be stubborn, then you're going to be stubborn whether you live in Alaska or Florida. If it's your nature to be flexible, then you're going to be flexible no matter if you're rich or poor. And if you're intellectually inclined, you will be that way if you live in the city or the country.

Children demonstrate their internal being from the minute they are born. They have a unique personality that doesn't come from the outside. Certain character traits are not acquired or learned, but are inborn. Those are the things that are truly "you," your internal person, your inner self.

The internal part of your being doesn't change as readily as the external. It's the real "you," so it's truer. It doesn't fluctuate. It doesn't come from the outside, so it can't be affected or determined by the outside. You can change yourself on your internal level only through effort. For example, if you are not the emotional type, you can work on learning to open up, and become more capable of expressing emotion. A change like this takes effort because you are trying to change the real "you," which doesn't change so easily; but it's still possible.

You can change what you are at the external level fairly easily. With effort, you can change what you are at the internal level. But your essential level can never change.

The external and internal levels are the "created" parts of you, created by G‑d when He created you. But your essential level is not created; it is of G‑d Himself. Because it isn't created, it cannot change, even under extreme circumstances.

These three parts—the external, internal, and essential you—need to be modest in their own ways. Modesty will protect and nurture each of these aspects of your existence.

To nurture your external being, which corresponds to the garments of the soul, you need to be externally modest. This means being modest in your manner of dress and in how you speak and act. Internal modesty means keeping your inner being within, allowing how you think and feel to remain private. Essential modesty means recognizing your innocence, the part of you that never changes, that is not created but is eternal, that doesn't change because it cannot change.

Protected and nurtured, these parts of you do more than survive, they thrive. Immodest people can survive, but surviving is not thriving. They may not die, but if they can't attend to their inner selves, they are not really living, either. Anything that is taken out of its natural environment, that has to contend with hostile or unfamiliar conditions, stops thriving. For example, if you take a shorebird and put it into the forest, instead of eating fish it will have to live on insects. The bird may live, but it won't thrive. It will have to deal with things that distract it from its original purpose.

If you are a gentle person who has to fight off aggression, you can't thrive. Being a gentle person, you thrive on gentle things. If you are not in a comfortable environment, then you are struggling. In order to survive, you are forced to contend with things not of your nature. If you're not using your greatest attribute, gentleness, then you're not flourishing.

You can't live without surviving, but you can survive without living. Survival for its own sake is a distraction from living, and that's when you're not flourishing.

The external you has to have an environment in which external things can thrive. And the internal you has to have an environment in which internal things can thrive. Your skin will flourish when exposed to fresh air, but your spleen will not. Your spleen is an internal organ that can thrive only in an internal environment. Your skin, on the other hand, thrives in air, and would languish without it. Your outer self flourishes in an external environment. For example, your ability to speak, part of your external being, likes to be exposed to company, and flourishes when you're around other people. Your thought is an internal process, part of your inner self. Being surrounded by people is not conducive to good thinking. Thinking thrives on privacy, on being alone. That's its natural environment.

The internal you, the "you are who you are"--your thoughts, your feelings, your individual way of looking at the world—flourishes when you are alone. But the social you flourishes when you are surrounded by other people.

Sometimes you find yourself trying to divide your time and energy between these two environments. You try to create moments when your social skills can flourish, and moments when you can be private so that your inner self can flourish. Celebrities carry this to the extreme. They go out into the social world, fully exposed, and flourish for a month. Then they have to withdraw. They block everyone else out, put on a blindfold, and get headaches. They can't handle phone calls; they're cracking up. They retreat completely into a shell for about a month, rebuild themselves internally, and then they're back out into the open again.

That's not a healthy or happy solution. That's not thriving; that's surviving. A human being is not a collection of pieces, but a harmony of parts. Thriving means that you nurture your external and internal selves at the same time.

How? By being modest. Modesty means there is harmony among the different levels of your existence. With modesty you can create an environment for your external being that is not to the detriment of your internal being. If you are modest, all of you interacts in harmony; all of you flourishes.

By behaving modestly, you can speak, dress, and interact with other people, while shielding your inner self. You can be private for the part of you that needs privacy, and at the same time, social for the part of you that needs company.

That's how external modesty—modesty of speech, dress, and action—protects and nurtures the internal self. When you are externally modest, you become more modest internally. It may seem strange to people who are unfamiliar with it, but in a traditional Jewish wedding, the bride and groom will leave the wedding canopy without so much as a glance at each other. He may be mobbed by the men, she by the women, but between the two of them, in public, nothing is exchanged. Not a glance or a look, nothing. Instead, they withdraw to a room together, where they can be private.

That's internal modesty. Whereas not hugging or kissing in public constitutes external modesty, internal modesty means, "Our inner feelings remain our own. Nobody is going to stand there watching while we express what we feel for each other. Whom we love, what we love, how much we love, is not for public display."

In the Russian village of Lubavitch, the eminent rabbi Sholom Dov Ber was once gravely ill. His little boy, his only child, sat by the door to his father's room day and night. One day the doctor emerged from the rabbi's room with a sober expression that frightened the boy.

The child, who would one day be known as the Frierdicher Rebbe, Rabbi Joseph I. Schneersohn, ran to his teacher to ask what he could do. The teacher said, "Tomorrow morning you will awaken very early and come with me to the cemetery. There I will tell you the prayers and psalms to recite at your grandfather's grave. We will both fast tomorrow, but you must tell no one."

The next morning the little boy arose while it was still dark, left his house, and joined his teacher. The snow was deep in Russia in the middle of winter. The child struggled to walk in the teacher's tracks.

At the cemetery, he burst into tears and pleaded with his grandfather to intercede with the Almighty to save his father's life. As the dawn was breaking, the teacher tapped him on the shoulder and said, "It's time to go back."

When they approached the town, they heard a shout. "The fever has broken. The rabbi will recover." The child looked at his teacher, who said, "Thank G‑d. But remember that this is a fast day for you. And no one must know."

Once again the child waited outside his father's room. When the doctor allowed him in for a few minutes, it was the first time in many days he had seen his father.

His father spoke. "Have you had your tea this morning?"

The little boy was in a dilemma. He couldn't lie to his father. And he couldn't divulge that he was fasting. So he stood there, silent. Fortunately, the doctor entered to tell him it was time to leave.

This child's ability to remain silent demonstrated a profound degree of internal modesty. That he had fasted for his father's recovery remained private.

When you achieve that degree of internal modesty you become receptive to your essence. What is that essence? Innocence.

You can't change your essence, because a person's innocence never varies. All people have the same amount of innocence. However, the innocence can show more in some people than in others, because they reveal it.

Since no one has more or less innocence, a modest person is not more innocent than an immodest person. But she is more in touch with her essence; her innocence is more revealed. Modesty means that you become a vessel receptive to innocence. External modesty, modesty of dress, speech, and actions, is the preparation of the vessel; internal modesty is the vessel, in which the essence is received and contained. By being modest, externally and internally, you touch your essence and receive it. In that way, you reveal your innocence.

Your essence, your essential self, compels you to seek innocence because you are innocent; to choose morality because you are moral; to serve G‑d because, at your very core, you are a part of G‑d.