“Apenny for your thoughts,” goes the famous aphorism. But some thoughts are priceless. There’s one particular contemplation that has crucial and far-reaching implications. It can save one from sin, provide him with a sense of self-esteem, offer him insight into the way Hashem runs the world, and soothe his resentment toward another Jew. 

This idea is central to the meaning of a brachah recited on an exceptional occasion. When one in is in the presence of 600,000 Jews — a rare circumstance — the halachah instructs him to recite a singular brachah: “Baruch Chacham harazim — blessed is the Wise Keeper of the secrets” (Berachos 58a). What is the meaning of this declaration? 

With their broad vision, our Sages perceived things differently than we. Amidst a crowd, we typically marvel at the sheer number of human beings; they chose to celebrate not the collective mass, but the individuality of each of the congregants. Accordingly, they composed a brachah to praise the One Who knows the secrets, the unique thoughts of each person. 

Our Place in His world 

The Tenth Principle of the Rambam’s Thirteen Principles of Faith states: I believe with complete faith that Hashem knows the thoughts and deeds of all human beings, as it is written, “He fashions their hearts all together and He understands all their deeds.” 

With this Principle, we begin the third and last subgroup of the thirteen fundamentals. The first group of beliefs was about Hashem. It included His existence, oneness, and lack of physical form. The second group centered on the Torah, its immutability and Divinity. The last group is about us. Once we know that Hashem is our Creator and that He has given us instructions for life, what are our roles and responsibilities, and what future can we anticipate? 

This key cluster of Principles begins with the knowledge that Hashem is fully cognizant of everything we do and think. 

Rav Hirsch points out that it’s the Tenth Commandment, lo sachmod — do not covet — that sets the seal upon the Aseres Hadibros. This is not only because it’s the last Dibrah, but because it’s the finest proof of the Divine origin of the Decalogue. No mortal king would ever prohibit an emotion, for desires of the heart cannot be enforced or monitored. Only the Creator can claim to know our inner feelings. 

The Chofetz Chaim famously declared that the proliferation of modern inventions in the past century is not so much a reflection of an advanced civilization as it is a gift from Hashem to reinforce our belief in His omniscience. Telephones, he explained, model the Ozen shomaas, the Ear that hears from afar. Tape recordings verify that all words can be meticulously documented. Similar lessons can be drawn from later inventions: ultrasound technology sees hidden images, videography records activities, and the global positioning system (GPS) follows our every movement. 

The Rambam separated this Principle of Hashem’s omniscience from the following Principle, that of reward and punishment. What are the ramifications of this Principle beyond its serving as a deterrent to sin? 

The Ramban (Shemos 12:16) tells of the pagan philosophy that affirmed Hashem’s existence as Creator, yet claimed “azav Hashem es ha’aretz — Hashem has abandoned the earth.” In contrast, we believe that Hashem directly sustains the world, and that if He were to withdraw His influence even momentarily, the world would revert to nothingness. 

Our knowledge of Hashem’s omniscience shapes our relationship with Him. We’re not only subjects of the King, but we stand before Him constantly. Life takes on great meaning when we consider that Hashem observes us constantly, cares about us, and responds to the choices we make. This supervision and interest is termed “Hashgachah.” 

Why They Did It 

Rav Moshe Shapiro points out that there is still more to be derived from this Principle. The Ramchal explains that Hashem uses His knowledge of our thoughts and deeds not only to dispense reward and punishment, but also to guide the world to its ultimate culmination. 

While it’s true that free will is allotted to mankind and that our actions lead the way, Hashem’s Will always prevails. This intricate interplay of man’s choices and the Divine plan elucidates a fascinating gemara (Avodah Zarah 2b) which relates a conversation between Hashem and the nations at the end of days: 

In the future, Hashem will hold on to the Sefer Torah and declare: Whoever occupied himself with the Torah, come and take your reward. 

The Romans will approach, and Hashem will inquire: What did you accomplish for Torah? 

They will reply: Ribbono shel Olam, we created many marketplaces, built many bathhouses, and amassed much gold and silver. And we did it all for Yisrael, to enable them to study Torah. 

And Hashem will answer: Fools of the world! All that you did was for your own purposes! 

Then the Persians will enter and make their claim: We designed many bridges, conquered many cities, and waged many wars. And we did it in order to enable Yisrael to engage in Torah. 

And Hashem will answer again: Fools of the world! All that you did was for yourselves! 

The Brisker Rav wonders why Hashem labels them as “fools.” Weren’t they blatant liars? They had no intention to benefit Klal Yisrael! Secondly, what possessed them to utter such outright lies? Isn’t the end of days a time when dishonesty and falsehood yield to the truth? 

The Romans and Persians were not lying. Everything they accomplished to improve their infrastructure and economy was beneficial to the nearby Jews, indirectly aiding their Torah study. 

At this moment of truth, they came to realize that they’d been unwitting accomplices to Hashem’s plan. 

The very first word of the Torah states Hashem’s overall goal for the world: “Bereishis.” Rashi interprets “bishvil reishis” — Hashem created the world for the sake of Klal Yisrael and the Torah. Torah sources indicate that every single thing that happens in the world, including man’s personal choices, is used by Hashem to advance His own plan for His People. 

Thus the nations were not liars, but fools. They had indeed fostered Torah study, but they deserved no credit, for that was not their intention. They were fools to attempt to claim reward. 

Integrated into His Will 

If Hashem runs the world according to His design, and this includes world events and the personal circumstances of each human being, what happens to His plan when man deviates from His path? 

Our Creator is not surprised, daunted, or limited by man’s exercise of free will. No wicked or free-spirited individual can thwart His plans. Instead, He uses His foreknowledge of man’s decisions to integrate the actions of mortals into His world plan. 

Man exercises independence in one area only. He is given permission to choose good or evil. It is Hashem who decides if man will be successful in his efforts, and it is Hashem who will use man’s own choices — good or evil — to further His agenda. This system is called hanhagas hayichud because its ultimate implication is that Hashem is Echad, the sole controller. Everyone was created by Him, is managed by Him, and ultimately will bring sanctification to His Name. 

An example of this system is the story of mechiras Yosef. Years earlier, Hashem had told Avraham Avinu that his children would be “foreigners in a land that is not their own, and they [the rulers of this land] will enslave and afflict them.” 

When the brothers of Yosef decided to sell him into slavery, Hashem, who knew their thoughts, used their plot to bring the family of Yaakov Avinu down to Mitzrayim, setting the exile into motion. Had they not chosen to sell their brother, Hashem would have employed another means to carry out His Will. 

A generation later, Pharaoh issued the order to drown the newborn Jewish males in the Nile, in an effort to avert the realization of his astrologers’ prediction that one of these children would become Yisrael’s savior. Ironically, this command led to Moshe’s salvation from the water by Pharaoh’s own daughter. Yisrael’s savior was raised and groomed for leadership in Pharaoh’s own home! The evildoer is not an obstacle for Hashem. He uses him as an accomplice to bring about His original goal. 

The Torah instructs us to fasten a railing around our roof with these words (Devarim 22:8): “Do not cause blood to be shed in your home, so that the nofel — the one who falls — shall not tumble off [your roof].” Why is the victim called a nofel even before he fell from the property? Rashi explains that a Divine decree had to have preceded the incident — he was meant to fall. Nevertheless, the homeowner is still responsible to take proper precautions so that his property is not utilized as the site of the accident. If he doesn’t do so, Hashem uses the opportunity to punish the nofel. 

Where’s My Free Will? 

Over the generations, the greatest Jewish thinkers have grappled with the seeming incompatibility of the two concepts of man’s bechirah, free will, and Hashem’s foreknowledge. The boundaries of man’s thinking process don’t allow him to completely understand the topic. In fact, the Raavad states that all talk on this topic is futile. 

Yet, it’s important to recognize that the juxtaposition of the two concepts is consistent with our Principles of Faith. The Rambam tells us that the Principle of achdus Hashem includes the fact that His knowledge is not separate from His essence — it’s all one. Therefore, just as we cannot comprehend His essence, we cannot fathom His knowledge. 

Furthermore, another Principle states that Hashem is unrestrained by time or place. If we accept that our Creator can “be present” in many places at once, we also believe that He can “be present” in many times at once, the future as well as the present. 

The Mishnah asserts unequivocally (Avos 3): “Everything is foreseen, yet permission is granted to the person to choose.” Hashem knows our deeds, our hidden thoughts, our future choices, even the future results of our choices, nevertheless, a person can still choose to do right or wrong, and he is responsible for his decisions and will be rewarded or punished accordingly. 

Don’t Shoot the Messenger 

Despite our limited understanding of the interplay of Divine omniscience and bechirah, it can serve as a game changer in the field of interpersonal relations. Since no human can make a move outside of the Creator’s jurisdiction, his undertakings will only be effective if Hashem wants him to succeed. 

Thus, if Reuven decides to murder Shimon, he can only do so if Shimon deserves to die. Since Hashem knows the future, he may decide to utilize Reuven’s hostile decision to give Shimon the punishment he deserves. Of course, Reuven is still guilty of murder, for he did it from his own free will. Yet, had he not chosen to kill, Hashem would have used another means to carry out Shimon’s punishment. 

Therefore, if someone hurts us, we were meant to be hurt. This understanding helps to soften the anger, blame, and desire for revenge that are normally directed by a victim toward his provoker. In a famous passage, Dovid Hamelech reacts to the curses of Shimi ben Geira with these words: “Let him curse, for Hashem has told him to do so” (II Shmuel, 16:11). 

Just as we recognize the futility and illogic of “shooting the messenger” who brings bad news, or blaming a meteorologist for predicting unfavorable weather, so Dovid was able to look beyond the immediate reality and recognize Hashem’s Hand at work. 

The Rema in the beginning of the Shulchan Aruch emphasizes, “Shivisi Hashem l’negdi samid.” When a person lives by the credo, “I will place Hashem before me always,” the presence of Hashem is not an intellectual exercise, but a reality to him. “For the one who firmly believes that the great King, Whose glory fills the entire world, is standing before him and watching his deeds, will automatically experience fear and submission before Him.” 

Indeed a thought worth far more than a penny. 

Sources include: Rav Moshe Shapiro, Rav Chaim Friedlander, Rav Bentzion Epstein.