Jewish Strength and Jewish Beauty in a Time of War by Yosef Kanefsky

July 25, 2014

There is no strength like the strength which emanates from one’s moral core. There is no beauty like the beauty which radiates from one’s innermost soul. The Jewish moral core and innermost soul are the ones that have been shaped and formed over thousands of years by the words of our teachers and sages.

Consider the following rabbinic teaching. When the Biblical King Avimelech was warned by God to not touch Sarah for she was a married woman, the king promptly returned her to Avraham in the morning. But as a residual consequence of God’s displeasure, all of the women of Avimelech’s household became infertile. Avraham prayed for then, and in response to Avraham’s prayer, God restored their fertility.

The Torah’s next chapter begins with God remembering Sarah, and blessing her with conception. As our Sages read the stories, Sarah conceived precisely during that short window between when Avraham prayed, and when God restored fertility to the women of Avimelech’s household. From which we are to learn that, “Whoever requests mercy for another, and is himself in need of the same mercy, he is answered first” (Bava Kamma 92a). Which is to say, that what  God admires most in a human being, what makes a human being worthy of God’s response, is his ability to pray for someone else who has the same need that he does. In this case, the need was for fertility. But it could equally be the need for one’s children to be protected from dangerous explosives that are dropping out of the sky. This is what our sages intended for us to understand. That the most beautiful tehillim gatherings are the ones which also include prayers for the protection of all the innocent Gazans who are in harm’s way. This is the beauty that radiates from our innermost soul, the soul shaped by the teachings of our Sages.

Another sage whose teachings have shaped our soul is Rabbi Yaakov Zvi Mecklenberg, the Rabbi of Königsberg in the 19th century, and the author of a Torah commentary called HaKetav V’HaKabbalah. When Rabbi Mecklenberg reached the 16th chapter of Devarim, he puzzled deeply over 4 particular words there, part of Moshe’s instructions concerning the conquest of the Canaanites. Instructing the warriors Moshe said,  לא תחיה כל נשמה, “leave no soul alive”. Not woman, not children. Though not the first sage to be stunned by the moral implications of this command, Rabbi Mecklenberg invested an unusual amount of energy in struggling with it.

“It appears”, he says, “to be an act of great cruelty to spill the blood of innocents. If the men sinned (took up arms) what sin was committed by the children or by the women??” And after reviewing earlier rabbinic grapplings with this question he proposes a radically new interpretation. He first points out that the Biblical verb used here (l’hachayot”) often means “to sustain”. And then he proposes that Moshe was here reacting to the then-common practice of taking the vanquished women and children, and sustaining them with food and clothing only to then utilize them as maid-servants and slaves. Moshe is here prohibiting this practice, urging Israel to “send them free so that they can flee outside the places of  Israelite settlement.”

Recognizing the novelty of his interpretation, Rabbi Mecklenburg concludes, “And even if you do not accept my interpretation…you have no choice but to agree that the meaning of the verse cannot possibly be that they were to kill all the people (even the men) in the city without distinction. Did all of them agree to initiate hostilities?? There are times when the army imposes its will upon the population. Could it even enter your mind that in such a situation the Torah would say “Leave no soul alive?!”

This is our moral core, as shaped by our Sages and as codified in the IDF’s ethical code.  As Professor Moshe Halbertal wrote (in his 2009 critique of the Goldstone Report)

Three principles are articulated in the IDF code concerning moral behavior in war. The first is the principle of necessity. It requires that force be used solely for the purposes of accomplishing the mission…The second principle is the principle of distinction. It is an absolute prohibition on the intentional targeting of non-combatants…. The third principle, the most difficult of all, is the principle of proportionality. Its subject is the situation in which, while targeting combatants, it is foreseeable that non-combatants will be killed collaterally. In such a case, a proportionality test has to be enacted, according to which the foreseeable collateral deaths of civilians will be proportionate to the military advantage that will be achieved by eliminating the target” (The New Republic, 11/18/09)

One final teaching, this one from the Mishna. Rabbi Eliezer and the Sages disagree as to whether a man may wear his sword on Shabbat in a place where there is no eruv, in the same manner that a woman may wear jewelry under such circumstances. Rabbi Eliezer notes that the social stature achieved by the warrior and the glory that battle accords him, and rules that implements of war are indeed to be deemed as ornaments and may be worn on Shabbat. The Sages however cite Isaiah’s vision of the day when people “shall beat their swords in to ploughshares and learn war no more”, and on that basis rule that weapons are not ornaments, rather implements of shame.

Obviously, Rabbi Eliezer was also aware of the passage from Isaiah. But he could see no reason why a vision of a world far in the future should impact the Halacha in the here and now.  But the Sages taught that the vision of a future world can and must inform the way we see and understand the present world. Yes, in this world, war is necessary. In circumstances like the ones we face today, the refusal to fight would constitute a reckless abdication of moral responsibility. But the Sages insist that we must never confuse the necessary with the good.  Even as we fight, the battle screams of how unredeemed the world is, of how spiritually undeveloped humanity still is.  And when the battle ends, they contend, we are bidden to go back to the drawing board and search for a new paradigm – as stubbornly elusive as it may be – in which people can live with each other without lifting swords. According to our Sages, weapons do not qualify as ornaments. They are reminders that we are a yet-unredeemed species. Here again, our teachers are molding our moral core and shaping our innermost soul.

It is not easy at times like these to pray for the other, to care for the non-combatant, to experience the sword as necessary but not good. What we need to remember though is that we must do things not in order to adhere to modern western values, or to respond to international pressures that often come dripping in hypocrisy or wrapped in barely-concealed anti-Semitism. We must do them in order to remain faithful to our own moral core and innermost soul, which our teachers and sages have painstakingly curated for us over thousands of years.

A few days ago, I davened and recited Tehillim with our teenagers, and toward the end I asked them to share what they are thinking about, what they are feeling. One precious young man, just back from Bnei Akiva summer camp, simply said, “How could anyone have thought that it made sense to kill a Palestinian teenager?”

There is no strength like the strength which emanates from one’s innermost moral core. There is no beauty like the beauty which radiates from one’s innermost soul.

May God give strength – and beauty – to His nation. May God bless His nation with peace.


My brethren in Gaza by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

July 24, 2014

I feel terrible for the people of Gaza.  They live under the rule of a violent oppressor.  But their oppressor is not Israel, it is Hamas, a terrorist entity whose very name means anger and whose actions seem to so revolve around war and hatred, that they cannot spend adequate money, time, or effort on the welfare of the people over whom they rule. 

Hamas has made it a regular practice to use the children of Gaza as human shields and to place rocket launchers and missiles in the people’s hospitals, schools, and mosques and has spent the billions of dollars of aid from Iran, the U.S., and other countries on missiles, bunkers, and offensive military tunnels instead of on schools, food, and medical care.   Hamas even destroyed the rich farming areas and greenhouses left behind by Israeli farmers when Israel withdrew from the area in 2009, as a step toward peace.

I care deeply about the innocent people in Gaza, made in the image of God, and who, going back to Abraham, are my brothers and sisters.  I pray for the people of Gaza. 

Over the past few years Israel has regularly treated the people of Gaza in Israeli hospitals.  A close friend, a Washington University Medical School trained surgeon who moved from St. Louis to Israel 10 years ago, periodically operates at a hospital in Herzliya on Palestinians who need the type of surgery in which he specializes.  And Israel is now fighting Hamas in a way to minimize collateral damage to the civilians of Gaza to the extent possible. This comes at a great cost of self-harm to Israel and to its citizens.  When Israel warns civilians in Gaza of an intended attack so that they can leave the area, Israel puts itself at peril as Hamas operatives are also warned.

In just the last 48 hours, Israel has put down its defenses to allow tons of goods into Gaza. During the past weeks, Israel has agreed to two humanitarian cease-fires. In the first hours of each of those cease-fires, Hamas rained down over 70 missiles onto Israeli civilian areas.

A few weeks ago when three Jewish teens were kidnapped and murdered by Arab terrorists, Hamas celebrated by distributing sweets to children.  When an Arab teen was murdered by Jewish terrorists, the Jewish world and Israel’s government condemned the terrible act. 

I hope Israel’s defensive war on Hamas will end soon and that Israel can join other countries in helping the people of Gaza rebuild their lives by providing them with farm equipment, water, electricity, medical care, and food and ultimately empower them to lead fulfilling lives when, with Hamas out of the way, there will be nothing stopping them from sitting at the negotiating table. 

But for now all I can do is pray and hope for a time of peace and security for all the people in the region and mourn for the loss of life on both sides. 

 


Why Don’t the Women Sing in Shul?

July 18, 2014

by Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold

Today, a friend told me of a question her three-year-old daughter asked her in shul on Shabbat:

“Mommy, why do only the men sing in shul?”

She was not referring to the fact that only men lead the davening or read from the Torah. She was noticing that when the tzibbur as a whole responds, or sings together, that only the men sing. My friend said that the question made her want to cry.

This phenomenon has bugged me for many years. In a typical Orthodox shul, the men sing, chant, mutter, even exclaim aloud at various points in the davening. The women sing beneath their breath, hum, or even whisper. It is as if we have taken the model of Chana, rak sefateha na’ot – only her lips moved but her voice could not be heard – and expanded it well beyond the silent Amidah into the rest of prayer.

Why don’t the women sing?

There is a possibility that it stems from concerns for Kol Isha. However, in Modern Orthodox synagogues, most women (and men) know that a group of women singing together does not violate the prohibition. There is also ample halachic evidence that even when a single voice is discernable within the group or when one woman is singing alone, the prohibition of Kol Isha does not apply in the context of prayer, education, or other holy activities.

So, why don’t the women sing?

I cannot speak for other women, but I can tell you why I don’t sing. It is not a halachic reason, but a musical one: I can’t sing in the men’s key!

It may sound like a simple, almost too simplistic answer. But for me, it is the truth. By the time the baal tefillah, hits those high tenor notes, I am silent on the other side of the mechitzah, having dropped my voice a long time ago.

For other women, there may be other reasons: some may feel shy; some do not enjoy singing out loud or would prefer to simply listen. But those of us who do try to sing find it almost impossible. When the baal tefillah is singing a lower part, we are in our upper range, struggling to sing an octave above him. And then as he moves to a climactic chorus, his voice soaring (along with so many other male voices on the other side of the room) it is just too high. It is then that we women need to dip down into our gravelly lower range to sing along. At that point, even if we are singing, no one can hear us, let alone can we hear ourselves. It feels as if whatever they’re singing over on the other side, where all the action is, makes our voices uncomfortable, and it is easier just to fall silent.

It is no wonder that davening in a women’s Tefillah fills me with a sense of relief. Many other women have told me they feel it too. Ah, finally. Just our key. We all sing aloud. Finally, we can hear ourselves, and each other. The room fills with women’s voices, strong and spirited.

Of course, there is more than a simple a choice of musical key that can cause some women to diminish their voice in shul. Some feel that the synagogue is not an atmosphere that is open and inviting to women. The choice of key is symbolic of the larger phenomenon – that the locus of control is elsewhere in the room. The decisions that are made as to how the service runs all come from a place to which we have no access. While it’s true that all the men in the room are also at the mercy of the baal tefillah’s choice in music and the gabbai’s choice in aliyah, we women know that these positions will never be open to us. I cannot simply wait until next week to choose my favorite tunes for Kedusha at Mussaf. I might indirectly influence the choice when my husband leads davening, and he chooses tunes he knows I’ll enjoy. Thus, it is only when I have an emissary on the other side that I feel I can have a voice. And even then…. Well, let’s just say my husband has a lovely tenor voice which does not jive well with my alto.

But maybe that’s just it. Maybe we women need male allies, advocates on the other side of the mechitzah, who will think of us, who will sometimes ask us what our preference is, and how we’d like to sing. It may sound patronizing, infantilizing even, to assert that women need this. But the reality is that if Orthodox women are going to have a voice in the typical Orthodox sanctuary, a musical say in the davening, it will only be with the help of the men.

I recall one particular time it did happen for me, when I was in Chicago, serving in a clergy capacity Anshe Sholom, on a Shabbat when the rabbi was away. As the baal tefillah was about to begin singing Lecha Dodi, he suddenly stopped. There was a long, silent pause, after which he looked across the mechitzah at me and mimed a total blank. He had choked. He simply could not come up with a single Lecha Dodi tune in that moment. I’m sure if the rabbi had been there, he would have started a tune. But our baal tefillah looked to me as the clergy who would have to step in. And without missing a beat, I began singing, and he followed suit.

Would it be so hard? I’m sure there are many musical women in our congregations who would jump at the chance to choose a tune, and yes, choose the key. Of course there are many Orthodox settings where women are leading Kabbalat Shabbat and other parts of Tefillah, but in situations where a woman cannot lead, at least let her lead from behind. I venture to guess that when the women’s voices are comfortable, we will more readily belt out Lecha Dodi – or Etz Chayim Hi or Aleinu – and that this will further our ability to feel like full participants in the room. I wonder what would happen if the women chose the key. I wonder if the men would begin to understand our experience. I wonder if we might create a beautiful harmony of the masculine and feminine voices in prayer, voices that could combine and together, reach the heavens.


Muslim and Jewish Leaders Jointly Reject Violence posted by Yosef Kanefsky

July 8, 2014

Late yesterday, my LA-based Muslim and Jewish colleagues and I released the following spiritual statement. Remarkably, it wasn’t difficult to put the statement together or to gather signatures. In fact, it was very easy. A testament, I think, to what years of patiently cultivating Muslim-Jewish relationships can achieve.
In a dark and difficult time (may God protect Israel and our chayalim), I hope that it gives you a moment of light.

(You can also view the statement at

http://www.jewishjournal.com/israel/article/muslim_jewish_statement_on_the_murder_of_innocents_in_israel

and at https://www.facebook.com/scmjf )

Press Release from the SoCal Muslim-Jewish Forum regarding the murder of Israeli and Palestinian Teens

We are a group of Muslim and Jewish community and religious leaders in Los Angeles and Orange County. Although we have important disagreements about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how it ought to be resolved, all of us together affirm that the murder of innocent people, be they Muslim or Jewish, is a desecration of God’s name and violation of the most basic tenets of our faiths. There is no possible justification for such acts and we utterly reject them. We are all children of Abraham and are beloved of God.

We together extend condolences to the families of Naftali Frankel, Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, and Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir. We pray that their memories serve to spur both of our communities to loudly and definitively reject the paths of violence and revenge, and to embrace negotiation in the spirit of mutual respect as the only way forward.

Signed,

Melissa Balaban, IKAR

Rabbi Karen Bender, Temple Judea

Rabbi Sharon Brous, IKAR

Noor-Malika Chishti, Sufi Order International

Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels, Beth Shir Shalom

Sheikh Yassir Fazaga, Orange County Islamic Foundation

Rabbi Ed Feinstein, Valley Beth Shalom

Rabbi Susan Goldberg, Wilshire Boulevard Temple

Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, Senior Claremont Lincoln Fellow for Interreligious Curriculum

Rabbi Judith Halevy, Malibu Jewish Center

Atilla Kahveci, Pacifica Institute, Westwood

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, B’nai David-Judea

Mohammed Khan, STOPP. Society To Offer Prosperity And Peace.

Rabbi Peter Levi, Temple Beth El of South Orange County

Mohannad Malas

Dr. David Myers, Chair, Department of History, UCLA

Dr. Sadegh Namazikhah, Iranian-American Muslim Association

Rabbi Laura Owens, B’nai Horin and The Academy for Jewish Religion California

Barrie Segall, Segall Consulting

Imam Jihad Turk, President, Bayan Claremont, an Islamic Graduate School

Shepha Schneirsohn Vainstein MA LMFT, reGeneration

The SoCal Muslim-Jewish Forum was convened in association with the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, Rabbi Marc Schneier, President


Will We Look in the Mirror? posted by Yosef Kanefsky

July 6, 2014

We did it. We carried out the revenge killing, just like we shouted we would. We slowly, over time, slid down the poisonous chute of racism and dehumanization, until murder could be rationalized. We tolerated the writing of Halachik treatises permitting the killing of non-Jews, and then, as we always do, followed the dictates of Halacha. We did it.

The only question now is whether we will look in the mirror. There are definitely alternatives to doing so. We can say that it was extremists; it wasn’t us. We can say that it’s all a conspiracy in which Obama pressured Israel to arrest Jews, but in fact Muhammad Abu Khdeir was killed by his own family because he was gay. We can say that given the intensity of the hatred that is directed toward us, any act of introspection on our part will be perceived as dangerous weakness. We can say these things and some of us undoubtedly will.

Kol Yisrael areyvim zeh l’zeh. We are all responsible for one another.

Will at least some of us look in the mirror?


Davening With Kavanah – Thoughts on the challenge and some solutions. Rabbi Barry Gelman

June 19, 2014

Praying with Kavvanah (concentration) is very difficult.

Lest we think this is a modern problem reserved for the common person, think again.

Said R. Hiyya the great, “In all my days I never concentrated [properly on my Prayer.]One time I wanted to concentrate [properly]. So I meditated. And I said to myself, `Who goes up first before the king? The Arkafta [a high dignitary in Persia]  or the Exilarch?'”

Samuel said, “I count birds.”

R. Bun bar Hiyya said, “I count rows of bricks.”

Rabbi Matna said, “I am grateful to my head for when I arrive at the Modim prayer, it bows on it’s own.”

[Y. Berakhot, Chapter 2, Mishnah 4.]

Rabbi Hiyya, Samuel and Rabbi Bun. bar Hiyya all tried to concentrate on prayer, but their thoughts wandered, one to politics, one to nature and one was so bored that he simply started counting the bricks in the wall. Rabbi Mata’s expression of thanks to his head testifies to another common challenge to praying with Kavvanah – rote action. Often our mouths are saying things that are disconnected from our mind.

When we read this passage we should feel a sense of common struggle – everyone struggles with prayer, even the greatest of religious figures.

But, we should also realize that despite their struggles we do not find that these rabbis gave up on prayer.

How can we overcome some of these struggles? How can we succeed in praying with Kavanah.

While there are many strategies, I would like to start with two (I plan on writing more about this).

One of the biggest challenges to prayer is that people are often not “in the mood” to pray. Some may not be feeling particularly grateful, others many not be in an introspective state of mind and others may simply be too busy.

The key here is to use prayer to make us feel prayerful. There is no doubt that it is hard to instantaneously get in the mood to pray. It is also true that the text of the prayers are there to move us. Words like, “Blessed are You, Lord, who forms the radiant light”, are there to awaken us to the marvels of the world. “You have loved us with great love, Lord our God, should move us to gratitude for the special relationship between God and the Jewish people as expressed by the Torah. Each and every prayer can be viewed as a means to rouse us to new and deeper understanding and appreciations of life. Do not wait to be in the mood to pray, use prayer to put you in the mood.

The second strategy is to realize that prayer is a cumulative experience.

Each prayer experience is a layer in the prayer career of an individual. Insights gained at one time lead to and add to the next prayer experience. As such, prayer gets better, more focused and richer the more we do it.

In this way, prayer is like many other aspects of life. Human relationships (marriage, friendships, family) grow and flourish from one experience to the next.  Viewing the events of our lives as disconnected incidents robs us of the ability to grow from the wisdom of accumulation.

To take advantage of this reality, we need to pray with consistency.

Inconsistent praying simply does afford the same cumulative experience and leave us feeling unsatisfied. On the other hand, tightly connected prayer opportunities can lead to an overall feeling of satisfaction and meaning in prayer.

Try these strategies for a few weeks. I think they will work. They work for me.


Judaism in the time of Climate Change. Posted by Yosef Kanefsky

May 25, 2014

A spiritual reflection one of the biggest elephants in our room.

It’s basic to our religious system that when human life is in danger, we stop and pay attention. This is true not only when human life is clearly and certainly in danger, but also whenever there is a reasonable possibility that life is in danger. We set aside Shabbat and virtually every other law in order to address even these possible dangers. Equally indicative of this religious attitude are the stories told in Mishna Ta’anit about the circumstances that prompted the Sages to declare days of communal fasting and prayer. On one occasion they declared a day of fasting because a tiny amount of wheat in Ashkelon had been ruined by shidafon, a dry, destructive wind. On another occasion they declared a communal fast when two wolves- capable of killing children – were merely spotted in an inhabited area. This is the way we live. When a real possibility of danger to life lurks, we don’t avert our eyes. As a matter of spiritual course, we take notice, and consider how to respond.

We’re at an interesting and challenging juncture right now in humanity’s journey on Earth. There’s at least a reasonable possibility, and many respected voices insist that it is more than just that, that in the coming years and decades, we will be dealing with a natural world that is less accommodating, and more hostile to human life, than the one we’ve come to know. We will experience bigger and more destructive storms, longer and deeper droughts, more frequent wildfires, and the spread of crop-threatening insects and fungi to places where they didn’t use to appear. These are reasonable enough possibilities that normative Jewish law and thought indicate that we are obliged to pay attention to them – and to their possible consequences. Accordingly, simply as a regular Jew doing what regular Jews do, I recently began the process of trying to place these possibilities into a religious framework, into a framework of appropriate spiritual response. Here are three ideas, drawn from our classical sources, that I believe serve to create this framework, both for today, and more importantly for tomorrow and beyond.

The first idea is SOLIDARITY. Back in the 41st chapter of Genesis, Yosef accurately interprets Pharaoh’s dream about the years of plenty and the years of famine that will come, and then finds himself charged with the awesome responsibility of storing food in the good years that would be eaten in the bad ones. In the middle of that story, we find the report that “two sons were born to Yosef, before the years of famine came”. The Talmud wonders about the significance of that last phrase. Why did the Torah specifically point out that the sons were born during the years of plenty? The Talmud then concludes – and this conclusion is codified into law with only with slight modifications – that we are to learn from Yosef’s behavior that it is prohibited to engage in marital intimacy during years of famine. There is a limitation on pleasure-taking during times of suffering.

The medieval Tosafists though challenged the Talmud’s analysis, pointing out that Yocheved the daughter of Levi was born just as Jacob and family were entering Egypt. Clearly, she must have been conceived during the years of famine! And while many answers are offered to this question, one of the most compelling is the one given by a 19th century thinker, Rabbi Boruch HaLevi Epstein. There would have no purpose in Levi’s refraining from marital relations, Epstein explains. The Talmud’s teaching is specifically about people like Yosef, who due to their own personal social or economic circumstances, are not personally affected by the famine. The Talmud is teaching us to vicariously experience other’s people’s suffering, and to consciously cultivate a sense of solidarity with people whose lives have been turned upside down by nature’s unfortunate surprises. And out of this solidarity, to develop the will and the strength to make political and economic decisions which respond to the challenging circumstances being experienced by others.

The second idea is PRIORITY, i.e. giving priority to human life over all other considerations. Here we’ll draw upon the example of a halachik decision made by Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Spector in the spring of 1868, in the midst of drought that had dramatically affected numerous crops, leaving peas and beans among the few foods readily available, especially to the poor. Rabbi Spector decided that the custom forbidding kitniyot would be lifted for Pesach of that year. While this may sound like a no-brainer of a decision, we know that rabbis face numerous pressures around decisions such as these. Would he be accused of overstepping his authority? Was he setting a dangerous precedent for the waiving of other time-honored customs? Was such a move especially perilous at a time when Jews in other parts of Europe were abandoning Jewish practices with abandon? Rabbi Spector might have decided differently based upon any of these considerations. But he did not. Because human life and welfare had to be given higher priority than any of the political or historical considerations that in other circumstances might militate against taking action. In times of trouble, human life must the highest priority.

And finally, we come to PRAYER. The model here is the prayer attributed to Avraham on the morning after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the prayer which our morning Shacharit is modeled upon. The Torah records that in the morning Avraham returned to the spot overlooking the cities, and saw nothing but smoke. The feared destruction had occurred. We can’t help but wonder, “What kind of prayer would he have said at that point?” I think that we must assume that it was a prayer similar to the one that we ourselves say each morning. “Place in our hearts the ability to understand and discern”. Teach me, God, what I should be doing differently. What changes I need to make in the way I conduct my own life, in the way that my household and my society conduct their lives, so that next time the outcome will be different, so that destruction can be averted? “You, who shine light upon the earth and its inhabitants with compassion”. You, God, are a benevolent God, who created out of love, and who does not desire the death of His creatures. Standing in Your presence, we do not despair. We continue to look forward, for we know we stand before God who desires life.

This is the prayer of our time and for the decades to come. It is the third element of the spiritual framework. We know before whom we stand. And we know what He expects of us, when we live in challenging times.


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