To cover or not to cover? That was my question for some time. When I was in high school, the thought of covering my hair after marriage was something I never thought I would do. My mother didn’t cover her hair and my sister-in-laws didn’t cover their hair. Then as I began college, this observance was something that no longer seemed foreign, something I actually contemplated doing one day.

By the time I got engaged to a rabbinical student in my senior year of college, to cover or not to cover my hair was no longer an issue. My circle of friends were definitely hair coverers, or future hair coverers, and I knew I would certainly cover my hair – though my reasons for doing so at the time were probably just as socially inspired as my reasons had been years before to leave my hair uncovered.

Covering my hair creates for me a new self-image

Before getting married, I bought two wigs from a lady in Woodmere, N.Y., a stack of berets on 13th Avenue in Boro Park, and despite the fact that I was so much more comfortable without something on my head than with, I proceeded to adjust to an unfamiliar appearance that stubbornly stared back at me each day as I looked in the mirror.

I recently celebrated my twelfth anniversary of covering my hair. It is second nature by now, part of my morning routine of getting dressed and ready for the day. My children think that I look funny when I don’t have my head covered, so accustomed are they to seeing me that way. As habitual as this observance has become, though, I find that I don’t take it for granted.

Time and maturity have given me more profound reasons for observing this observance than “just because my friends do” or “how will people judge me, my husband or my children if I don’t?” Covering my hair, like so many other observances that I observe, creates for me a new self-image. It reflects not an unfamiliar or uncomfortable appearance, but rather another step toward the ideal of the perfected personality.

Perhaps most importantly, covering my hair infuses me with a continuous message of modesty. At a basic level, the obvious definition of modesty certainly applies. Watch any advertisement for shampoo or other hair care products and it becomes dramatically clear how attractive and seductive a woman’s hair can, should, and is meant to be. And that which is attractive and seductive about a woman is, by the Torah’s definition, the private domain of the woman and her husband.

The goal of a woman covering her hair, or adhering to standards of modesty in dress, is not for her to make herself ugly; rather, the goal is for her to portray herself in a way that is not provocative. Who we really are, our inner essence, that which makes us truly unique and not just another pretty face, should be the image that we want to convey, and that image is best cast without highlighting the distractions – and trappings – of external appearance.

Modesty is such a fundamental concept in Judaism, and modesty in dress is only one small area of this dominant theme. A broader definition of modesty, and the charge to incorporate modesty as an underlying character trait, is found in the book of Micha, chapter 6, verse 8: “…what is good, and what does the Lord demand of you; but to do justice, to love loving-kindness, and hatzneah lechet im Elokecha, walk humbly, modestly, discreetly with your G‑d.”

The Hebrew word for modesty, tzniut, is derived from this verse. According to the Redak (Rabbi David Kimchi, a preeminent commentator on the Prophets), the latter part of this verse, hatzneah lechet im Elokecha, is a description of man’s inner relationship with G‑d, belief in G‑d’s Oneness, and love of G‑d with both heart and soul. This conviction and these powerful emotions are exclusive to the individual and to G‑d. No one else can really know how a person feels about G‑d in his or her heart, no matter how religious or irreligious the appearance may be on the outside.

Tzniut, the prophet is teaching us, is all about what is inside. What our values are, what we care about, what motivates us – this is what G‑d wants us to offer to Him and to humanity, purely, unadulterated by ulterior motives.

We make many choices in life. We choose professions, causes to champion, where to live, how to educate our children, what synagogue to join, how to dress. We should not make lifestyle choices based on how they will make us look in the eyes of everyone else. We should make these choices because they are good and proper in G‑d’s eyes and because they are simply the right choices to make. Walking modestly with G‑d means that we try to make the whole of our existence reflect a personal connection with the Divine.

There will always be others who can achieve bigger and better things than we can

Consider for a moment how liberating it would be to care only about what G‑d thinks of us. How much energy would we have to pursue really important goals if we stopped, materially, trying to keep up with the Jones’! How much more could we learn and understand if we stopped trying to keep up with the Schwartzes! How much happier our children would be if we didn’t shlep them from one extracurricular activity to the next, expecting them not only to win the trophies, but to get the best grades and win admission to the best schools.

Trying to keep up with, or outdo, others only begets unhealthy doses of stress and dooms us to fail because there will always be others who can achieve bigger and better things than we can.

On the other hand, being motivated solely by our relationship with G‑d and a desire to act in accordance with His will fills an individual with a sense of peace and contentment. True self-confidence can only be attained by a truly modest person, the one who does not need the fame, honor, recognition, or approval of others because inside, he or she ultimately cares about the only opinion that really counts.

Although both men and women are equally obligated to uphold the charge of hatzneah lechet im Elokecha, I believe that women in particular can relate to this concept of modesty. No matter how modern or how traditional a household is, the brunt of responsibility of running a home often falls on the woman. Even if she has a career and her husband shares the chores, she is still wife and mother, and for reasons that may be societal, genetic, or just plain unfair, that is the reality in most cases.

Ultimately, we must admit that the menial tasks involved in homemaking are worthy endeavors. Bringing to life and cultivating what will become our future and the future of the Jewish people is in no way insignificant. On a daily basis, however, cooking, cleaning, diaper-changing, carpooling, and all the other tasks we take on and carry out, can become less than glamorous, to say the least.

The difference between women who derive satisfaction from these tasks, and those who are miserable because of them, is based on a need for approval from a society that pays only lip service to the difficult, impactful and necessary work that women carry out vis-à-vis their homes and families.

Those women who care for their families because they see it as a significant and worthy endeavor won’t feel sorry for themselves when Western civilization doesn’t idolize what they do or value them in the way it would value a female lawyer or physics professor or CEO. If we are oblivious to what anyone else thinks, then we can be at peace with ourselves, knowing that all of the tedious tasks we do don’t go unnoticed by G‑d. This is a perfect example of what tzniut is all about.

True self-confidence can only be attained by a truly modest person

The Matriarchs of our nation – Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah – the paradigms of motherhood, are referred to as nashim ba’ohel, women of the tent. This description is meant as the highest level of praise for the modesty that was their trademark and crowning feature. Certainly, they were modest in the way that they dressed and conducted themselves in the presence of others. But perhaps the title – women of the tent – is not merely a description of where they spent most of their time.

I do not believe that staying indoors is what made our Foremothers such wonderful individuals. What made them so outstanding was the fact that their lifestyles and their decisions reflected their desire to do the right thing, to do what G‑d wanted them to do, not to please or gain approval from anyone “outside of the tent.” Sarah sent away Ishmael, and Rebecca encouraged Jacob to secure the blessing intended for his brother. Rachel refused to embarrass her sister, although it meant that they would have to share a husband, and Leah prayed that the son G‑d was giving her be given to Rachel instead.

G‑d testifies, with story after story, that the motives of our Matriarchs were always pure, that no matter how it looked from the outside, they were always seeking truth and justice. They led private lives and walked modestly with G‑d, yet they steered the destiny of the Jewish people. Being “women of the tent” did not prevent them from leaving their mark on the world.

In our generation, women do not stay at home in our “tents.” We have jobs, do volunteer work, teach, learn, socialize; in short, we are out there. But that doesn’t mean we can’t walk modestly with G‑d. When I put a covering on my head, it makes me aware that G‑d is above me and that whatever I set out to accomplish, I can do only with His trust and assistance.

Covering my hair helps me remember that I am not only about what everyone else can see. It is a daily reminder that the intensely private relationship between me and my Maker is so much more important than anything external. And it sends a very subtle, yet powerful, message that my connection with the Divine must be the basis of all of the choices I will make.