Category Archives: America

Charlottesville

I sit typing these words just a few days after the tragic events in Charlottesville Virginia.  It is hard to imagine that in the year 2017 (5777) White Supremacist and Nazi groups walked the streets of an American city, chanting anti-semitic slogans and carrying flags adorned with swastikas.  Americans were chilled by the images that came from Charlottesville, but for Jews the images were even more disturbing, bringing to our minds memories of the events of the Holocaust and the twisted and irrational hatred of our people that has all too often plagued us over the long years.  It felt like the nation had collectively taken a step back to a darker and more dangerous time.

We must always be on our guard.  Even here, even in America, so far away, in both time and place, from the horrors of World War II.  How easy it is to grow complacent, to allow ourselves to imagine that our hard won freedoms are guaranteed, that the forces of evil have been utterly defeated.  Remember the line in the Haggadah – “In every generation there are those who seek our destruction.”  And the Torah warns us of the dangers of complacency in the Book of Deuteronomy:  “Beware, for at the very moment when you feel settled, when your wealth has grown, when your home is strong, when your life is good – beware lest at that moment you begin to take it all for granted.”  (Deuteronomy 8)  The blessings of life should never be taken for granted.  And the greatest blessing of life, after life itself, is freedom.

The key is remembering that freedom cannot exist without freedom for all.  When some are free and others are not freedom is illusory, a house of cards that can all too easily come tumbling down.  That is the insight that has enabled America to become the greatest country in the world.  We have yet to realize that vision, but we subscribe to it, we believe in it, we find hope and comfort in it.  We work for it.  And when others try to destroy it, we have a responsibility to speak out.

Over the last days there have been rays of light in the darkness.  America’s top ranking military officers forcefully and unequivocally spoke out against extremism and bigotry in all its forms.  Leaders from across the communal spectrum were quick to condemn the hate groups.  CEOs from some of the top businesses in the country made it clear they would not stand for anything less than the dignified treatment of all people, regardless of race, color, or faith.  The mother of Heather Heyer, the young woman who was killed during the violence by a man who revered Nazi Germany, gave an eloquent eulogy for her daughter that reminded us all of what we can be at our very best.  Each bright moment helped to counter the darkness, each ray of light helped to restore hope, and we were reminded of what makes this country great.

Moving forward we must make sure that those are the values and ideals that we embrace as a nation and as individuals.  If and when we feel hatred and prejudice tugging at our hearts and poisoning our minds, we must reject them, categorically.  If and when we see hatred and prejudice in our communities, we must not turn our heads away, but instead walk forward to confront what we know in our heats to be wrong.  If and when we see hatred and bigotry in our nation, we must call it what it is, and discover what our role is in making sure it will not happen again.

In 1861 Abraham Lincoln concluded his first Inaugural Address with the following passionate words:  “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”  May we together follow those angels to a more peaceful, tolerant,  and just world for all.

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The Window

The window was right there, just a couple of feet to my left.  I was in fourth grade, Mrs. Cronk’s class (yes that was actually her name!), Thomas Jefferson School.  My classmates and I sat and squirmed, stared at the chalk board, poked at one another when the teacher’s back was turned, sometimes sighed with boredom, sometimes learned something new and surprising, still remembered to this day.  We watched the clock at the front of the room, the minutes ticking by at a painfully slow pace, three o’clock our magic hour of release.

But my view from the window called to me.  In the late summer the leaves of the trees were still green.  Just beyond that blue house on the corner with the worn front step was a field where I often played football.  And at the end of the street, at the edge of my vision, was a yard where a friendly dog lived.  He would be sleeping just a about now, in the shade of that tree in their front yard.

In fall the leaves turned, and I watched this miraculous process unfold through my classroom window, day after day.  I knew as I sat at my desk that acorns were collecting at the base of an old oak tree, that the wind was blowing fallen leaves along the sidewalk, that a leaf pile I had jumped in just yesterday was waiting for another chance.  The air was crisper, and out in the school yard a gym class played kickball.

In the winter mounds of snow piled up in the school parking lot.  When I stole a glance out my window I could see the largest of those piles to my left.  We had played king of the hill on it that morning, reluctantly entering our classrooms wet and cold, with flushed cheeks, numb hands and feet.  There was unfinished business on that greying mound of snow, if only the clock would somehow find its way to ‘3.’

In early spring my window framed a view of melting ice and snow, of grey trees silently and inscrutably watching the length of the days, feeling the temperature, their tops bare and exposed to the still cold wind.  A fifty degree day was a revelation!  Looking out my window I knew what the walk home would be.  We would shed our jackets, kick stones down the street, poke at the melting snow with sticks fallen from the trees during the winter, stomp in a puddle or two just for good measure.

For school might hold us for a while, but outside the window was an adventure waiting to happen, each walk home a journey of exploration, with a sense of freedom and independence, of possibility, of becoming.  The window looked out on my small home town, the narrow streets, the neatly trimmed lawns, the cracked sidewalks and running rows of hedges.  But it also looked out on a big world, grand and open, mountains, rivers, hills, vast plains.  A day would come when I would go there, too.

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Make America Gilead Again

A wonderful turn of phrase I discovered in this morning’s NY Times.  It appeared in James Poniewozik’s review of the new Hulu series adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  Reviews of the series have been exceptional across the board, citing the quality of the acting, production, directing, etc, etc – evidently, it is top notch all the way through.  But what all the reviews make special note of is how ‘chillingly’ relevant the story line is to today’s world.  In Atwood’s dystopian near future women are treated like objects, fundamentalist religion reigns supreme, and the government has been overrun in a military coup.  It all reads (or views) a little too close for comfort.

Which is precisely what Poniewozik’s phrase so perfectly captures.  Gilead is the name of Atwood’s twisted future ‘republic.’  And as I suspect you remember, ‘make America great again’ was the current president’s campaign slogan.  How ironic that the end of Trump’s first 100 days comes in the very same week when The Handmaid’s Tale adaptation airs its initial episodes.  As ever, great art enables us to raise a mirror to our current reality, a mirror in which we see things as they are, but with a deeper sense of meaning, understanding, and context.  As the old saying goes, when you read the newspaper you find out what happened yesterday.  When you read great literature you find out what always happens.

Atwood begins her novel with a quote from Genesis 30, describing Rachel’s infertility and her decision to use Bilhah, a ‘handmaid,’ to conceive in her stead.  The reference fits with the narrative’s understanding of religion as a dangerous and destructive force, one that by nature subjugates women.  And it is true, if you pick and choose the right verses you can read the Bible that way.  And perhaps that is the way some fundamentalists would read the text, and certain politicians as well.

But the Bible is a long book, and there are many ways to read it, and many ideals and values expressed in it.  Some of them are radically progressive, even for our day and age.  The great Hebrew prophets of old, Isaiah the greatest of them all, stood on the streets of Jerusalem and proclaimed the word of God.  Their message was one of tolerance and dignity, of hope and faith, of God’s ultimate goodness and the responsibility of the people to create a just society.  They cried out at injustice directed against the poor and the marginalized.  They spoke in God’s voice for those who had no voice of their own.

Word on the street is that the new Handmaid’s Tale TV series will  take the story beyond the end of Atwood’s novel.  Perhaps in a future episode there will be an Isaiah like character, dressed in robes, eyes flashing, speaking with unmatched eloquence about a world gone wrong.  No question the Republic of Gilead needs that prophetic message.  What we are coming to understand is that we need it too, in our world, in our republic, in our own time.

“No, this is the fast I desire:  to unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the core of the yoke;  to let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke.  It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home;  when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin.”  (Isaiah 58: 6-7)

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Not All Who Wander Are Lost

The title is a quote from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  Below is a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 2/4/17.

Not really a sermon this morning, but three brief vignettes that might help us, as Jews, think about about some of what is going on in Washington these days, particularly the immigration ban.  Sometimes it can be helpful to look back, because it is easy when you get comfortable – as we are today – to very quickly forget where you’ve actually come from.

And we’ll begin by looking way, way back, all the way back to this morning’s Torah portion, the events of which most scholars would date about 3500 years ago.  I want to introduce you to a young Israelite slave who was living in Egypt at that time.  His name was Nahshon, the son of Aminadav, from the tribe of Judah.  He was about 18 or 19 years old, and had lived his entire life in slavery, working in the hot Egyptian son, doing the backbreaking work of building the pyramids.  But there was something special about Nahshon.  Unlike his parents’ generation, whose spirits had been crushed by the cruel bondage of Egypt, Nahshon had a fire burning inside of him.  He had always believed that one day there might be a way to escape the slavery, to leave Egypt behind, and to live life as a free man.  But he never really knew how that night happen.

And then one day a man named Moses appeared.  He would come to the Israelite villages, and he talked about ideas that seemed strange, even crazy.  He said that the old God of the ancestors, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah had returned.  That that God had heard the cry of the Israelites in their slavery, and had set in motion a series of events that would somehow enable them to be free.  Many of the people didn’t believe Moses, but Nahshon did.  He began to quietly talk about a moment that would soon come, a door that would suddenly open, a window in time, when the Israelites would leave Egypt and set out on a journey to freedom.  Nahshon watched, and waited, and bided his time.

Then one night it actually happened.  It was the middle of the night, and a terrible cry could be heard throughout the land of Egypt.  A deathly power was making its way through the Egyptian homes, slaying all of the first born.  Moses and his messengers went through the Israelite settlements, urging people to pack a few belongings in haste, to take with them only what they absolutely needed the most.  And so the people quickly assembled – men, women, children.  Nahshon fell in with his tribe, with a small sack over his shoulder.  In his heart he felt a sense of hope he had never before felt in his life.  He turned his face to the east where the sun was rising, and he began to walk forward.  As the first rays of the sun fell on his face, his eyes burned brightly.

Lets now take our minds out of the Egyptian desert, and move forward in time about 1000 years.  In the year 586 BCE a Jew named Azariah lived on the outskirts of Jerusalem.  He was a simple man, living a simple life.  He made his living by harvesting grapes and olives in the groves and vineyards around his small home, and making wine and olive oil that he sold to travelers who were on their way to see the great city.  But Azariah lived in troubled times.  Jerusalem has been besieged by the Babylonian army, the greatest power in the ancient world, and the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar.  The Babylonians have built great war towers around the city’s walls, and they waited patiently as hunger and thirst began to set in.

In the course of a few weeks during that terrible summer Azariah watched the Babylonians bring Jerusalem to its knees.  The siege lasted for three months, but the end was quick.  The Babylonians finally breached the outer walls, and then steadily made their way towards the Temple mount, burning and destroying everything in their path.  When they reached the Temple they set it on fire, and later tore it down, stone by stone, to its foundation.  A few days later Babylonian soldiers appeared and informed the local population they would be exiled and sent to a far away land.  They had one day to prepare.  Azariah didn’t know it, or think about it this way, but very much like his distant ancestor Nahshon he packed a small sack with his few belongings.  The next morning he joined a long line of his fellow Jews, 4,600 of them, and guarded by Babylonian soldiers, they began a journey that would take many months, and would end with them living in exile on the banks of the K’var River in Babylonia.  For the first time in Jewish history there was a diaspora community, but they never forgot Jerusalem their sacred city, or Israel their holy land.

Of course there have been countless other Jewish journeys in the course of time, some forced, others taken freely. As the Muslim civilization grew to power in the 7th century Jews followed trade routes and established small communities on the Iberian peninsula.   In the the late 800s Jews gradually made their way into Europe, settling in small villages along the Rhine River, and in Italy and France.  There were forced expulsions – from England in 1290, and of course from Spain in 1492.  Each time, like Nahshon and Azariah before them, the Jews packed their few belongings and began another journey, searching for a home, searching for freedom.

I would like to share one last story with you this morning.

This story begins fairly recently in the long scope of Jewish history, on the 13th day of May, in the year 1939.  On that day a young woman named Regina Adler boarded a boat called the SS St Louis in Hamburg Germany.  There were 937 passengers on that boat, almost all of them Jewish.  They were afraid, fleeing a country they had believed to be a safe haven, a place where until recently they thought they could live freely as both Jews and Germans.  Regina was born in Austria Hungary, in 1897, but had come to Germany with her parents as a teenager.

When the ship set sail the destination was Havanah, and despite difficult conditions on board the trip went smoothly.  Every passenger on the ship left Germany with proper documentation and permits that should have allowed them to enter Cuba, but when the boat arrived at the Havanah port they were told all permits had been revoked and they were forced to remain on board.  In desperation the boat headed for US shores, but it was met by US Coastguard ships and told in no uncertain terms that it would not be permitted to land.  On June 6 the decision was made to turn the St Louis around and head back to Europe.

About half the passengers on the boat would survive the war.  England, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France all agreed to take in some of the Jewish refugees.  Most of those who ended up in Nazi controlled areas died in the camps.  But Regina Adler was permitted to enter England, and she lived there for many years after the war ended.

These are our stories, Jewish stories.  Of exile and forced travel, of wandering and searching for home and freedom.  They are ingrained into our souls and psyches – informing who we are and how we see the world.  Robert Louis Stevenson wrote “we are all travelers in the wilderness of this world.”  When we think about today’s events, about a world filled with refugees, about immigrants searching for a new home, about borders and who should be permitted to cross them, we should remember our own history.  After all, it wasn’t so long ago that we were packing our own small bags, leaving our homes behind, and setting out with hope for the Promised Land.

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Looking for Kansas

You will remember the famous line from the Wizard of Oz, spoken by Dorothy to her dog Toto just after they arrive in a strange and magical land:  ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore.’ Over the years that phrase has entered the vernacular, generally used to indicate the moment when you realize you’ve entered unknown territory, that you’ve come to a place, whether physical or metaphysical, where you’ve never before been.

So where are we today?  With constant protests and regular ‘executive orders.’  With immigration bans and simmering anger.  With simple and straight forward facts being doubted and questioned and sometimes blatantly denied.  I actually had to step between two men in their 80s at our kiddish after services this past Shabbat.  I was afraid they were going to come to blows, one speaking out in support of the administration, one against.  Both of them, by the way, are immigrants.

Wherever we are, we are not in Kansas.  Of that I am sure.  I guess the question might be how do we get back?

Being honest, at this point I don’t know.  Perhaps the Wizard of Oz is instructive.  Dorothy had a long way to go before she found her way back home.  Challenges and even some dangers to overcome.  The Yellow Brick Road.  The Lion and Scarecrow and Tin Man.  Those weird looking flying monkey things.  The Emerald City, even the Wizard of Oz himself.  And of course the Wicked Witch!  Along the way she had moments of heartbreak, despair, and doubt.  And even at the end of that long road it was touch and go.  But she made it.  And when she arrived, boy did Kansas look good.

And all the way through she maintained the courage of her convictions.  Not  that she didn’t learn along the way, and change and grow.  She did!  But her innate sense of decency and fairness and the kindly inclination of her heart remained steady.

Maybe that is what is happening in America today.  People are realizing what really matters to them, and the country itself is rediscovering fundamental values like tolerance and kindness, caring for the marginalized, and welcoming the stranger, fairness and human dignity.  Sounds a lot like Kansas.  And people have been pulling their ruby red slippers out of their closets all over this land.

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The Titanic Sails at Dawn

Those of you who are Bob Dylan fans will recognize the line from his song ‘Desolation Row,’ one of my personal favorites.  Written in 1965 the song appeared on Dylan’s 6th album, Highway 61 Revisited.  Reading through the lyrics today the great poet/songwriter seems eerily prescient.  The first stanza alone captures perfectly the zeitgeist of today’s America:

They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row

A blind commissioner.  A riot squad.  The circus coming to town.  And where do you find yourself?  In Desolation Row.  At its core the song asks one central question:  where has the value of integrity gone?  The bleak answer Dylan seems to offer is this:  nobody knows.

We might say the same thing today, 51 years after Dylan first recorded ‘Desolation Row.’  Can you imagine – Bernie Madoff was just the tip of the iceberg!  This morning in the NY Times an article appeared describing yet another five star hedge fund that promised double digit returns called Platinum Partners.  Working mostly in the Jewish community, it turns out the managing partners were colluding to run a Madoff like ponzi scheme, taking out high risk loans and money from other investors to pay those who wanted to cash out.  Seven members of the firm have been arrested and face serious charges.

But why not?  What the heck?  It is everywhere, happening all the time, folks ignoring reality and just moving ahead to get their little piece of the action.  Look at Wells Fargo and their fraudulent accounts.  They have so much dishonesty to deal with they actually have a ‘how to report fraud’ tab on their website (if you like you can visit it at this link:  https://www.wellsfargo.com/privacy-security/fraud/report/).  Or what about VW, the ‘wagon of the people,’ company, knowingly and intentionally deceiving customers and governments about diesel emissions.  This wasn’t just a sin of omission, it was a sin of commission.  They had to plan it, create the software that would bypass the testing procedures, test that software, make sure it properly and effectively lied about the car’s status.  But faulty airbags, who cares?  To use a technical term, the chutzpah of it all.   When you can’t trust the people who brought you the VW bug, when you can’t trust the people who run your bank, manage your investment money, who can you trust?

So maybe it is more important than ever to fight to maintain a sense of personal integrity. What does it say in Ethics of the Fathers?  In a place where there are few people, strive to be a mensch (Avot 2:5).  It is precisely when values like integrity are under siege that you have to step forward and reaffirm traditional ideals.  Integrity matters.  Truth matters.  Right and wrong matter, and we can discern one from the other.  Doing the right thing makes a difference.  Doing the wrong thing is – well, actually wrong.  Even on Desolation Row.  It may be the case the Madoff was just the tip of the iceberg, and the Titanic is sailing at dawn.  But you don’t have to board the ship.  The shame of it is you can’t even make the journey in your old and trusted VW van.

You can read the rest of the Desolation Row lyrics on Dylan’s website.  Here is the link:  http://bobdylan.com/songs/desolation-row/

 

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An Ambassador to Israel

This a text of my Shabbat sermon from 12/17/16 –

It has been interesting in the weeks since the presidential election to watch President Elect Trump fill the various cabinet and diplomatic posts that are required of a new administration.  And I have been waiting with particular interest to see who Mr. Trump would tap to be the US ambassador to Israel.  That question that was answered this week when he asked David Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer from Long Island, and also the son of a Conservative rabbi, to fill that post.  Traditionally the ambassador doesn’t have any policy making power – instead, his or her role is to carry out the policies of the current US administration, while at the same time keeping an ear to the ground for what is happening in the host country.

That being said, the choice of ambassador is often seen as an indicator of where the current administration might be leaning in terms of how it intends to relate to the host country, in this case Israel, what policies it might hope to put into place, what strategies it intends to emphasize.  And if this is the case, it is worth spending a few minutes thinking about who the new ambassador is, and what his known views on Israel are.  And although David Friedman has never been a diplomat, he has for many years now been very involved in Israel and Israeli issues, and has written a series of columns for prominent Israeli papers about the peace process, the settlements, the West Bank, a two state solution – if there is a controversial political issue in Israel, particularly regarding Israeli – Palestinian relations, then David Friedman has written about it or spoken publicly about it.

What is immediately clear from even a cursory examination of his writing and public speaking is that he is a hard line Hawk, so much so that many of his positions bring him to the right of the Netanyahu government, considered already to be a Hawkish administration.  He believes in the idea of a ‘greater Israel,’ that there should be full Israeli sovereignty over the entire territory of David’s kingdom as described in the Bible.  He has helped over the years to fund the Israeli settler movement, establishing Jewish outposts and small villages in Palestinian areas, and he is on the record as saying it is within Israel’s rights to annex sections of the West Bank.  He has also publicly said that he does not believe in a two state solution, and he has demonstrated a particular talent for overblown rhetoric, recently publishing an article in which he called President Obama an anti-semite.  In that same article he wrote that Jews who insist on supporting positions on Israel that he views – David Friedman views – as radically to the left are worse than Kapos, the Jews who worked with the Nazis in WW II.

All of this to give you a taste of David Friedman, and you can see he is strongly opinionated, controversial, and also seems to have no tolerance for views which do not agree with his own.

Now again, the job of the ambassador is not to set policy, but rather to carry out the policies of the administration he or she serves.  The question is will the Trump administration adopt the same views of their ambassador?  Or to take the question one step further, is David Friedman’s appointment an indication that the administration is already adopting those views?

As we let that question settle into our minds, let me turn our attention for a moment to this morning’s Torah portion.  I know that the President elect is not a religious man, and does not read the Bible, but David Friedman is an Orthodox Jew, and I would guess first of all he is in shul this morning, and second of all is very well familiar with the narrative in this morning’s sedra, the story of the patriarch Jacob wrestling with a mysterious unknown attacker.  I am sure you are also familiar with the story, one of the best known in the entire Bible.  Jacob is returning to the land of Israel after a 20 year absence.  While away he has grown wealthy, become a husband and a father.  But he is afraid to come home because he knows he will have to confront his brother Esau, from whom he stole the blessing and the birthright two decades ago.  He knows that Esau is coming to meet him at the border, and he takes a series of precautions – dividing his possessions, his children, and his wives into different groups with the hope that if one group is attacked the other will survive.  And then Jacob does something curious – he waits, alone, in the dark, on the far side of the border.

It is at that point that Jacob is attacked by a mysterious ‘ish’ – the Hebrew for ‘man.’  The man seems to become an angel, but the text is very obscure, and commentators have for centuries debated about the identity of that ‘ish.’  Who was he, and what did he really want with Jacob?

Many answers have been given over the years, but the one that interests me this morning understands the mysterious man to actually be Esau, the brother that Jacob fears.  Let us imagine for a moment that it is indeed Esau who crosses the river under darkness, and attacks his brother.  This is the language the Torah uses to describe that moment – ויאבק איש עמו – the man wrestled with him.  It is a curious term to say the least – so much so that the only the time the word is used in the entire Bible – the whole Bible! – is in this story.  Why didn’t the man sneak up on him in the dark and attack him with a sword or knife?  Or shoot him with an arrow?  All of these are forms of combat the Bible was familiar with – so what is this business with the wrestling?

Here is one answer from the biblical scholar and commentator James Kugel – “In wrestling the limbs of the two antagonists become so entangled that one does not know for sure which belongs to whom.  Wrestling simultaneously seeks closeness to and control over.  The loser does not die or leave;  though he must acknowledge defeat, he remains present, even near, in the continuing embrace of the victor.”

Jacob and Esau wrestle in the dark because they have become so entwined, so entangled, they they cannot figure out a way to separate one from the other.  They know that even if one of them is victorious the victory will be only temporary.  The other will still be there, perhaps damaged, perhaps injured, but still standing, and will not be going away.  They may not trust each other, they may even hate each other, but they are compelled to come together, time and again, limbs intertwined, foreheads touching, muscles straining, with neither able to achieve a clear victory.

When you think about it that is not a bad description of the Israeli Palestinian conflict.  And it might be one that David Friedman, and by extension President Elect Trump, might want to spend some time mulling over.  There is no magic spell that will make the Palestinians somehow disappear in the darkness.  And there is no moral path to making them go away.   And the more settlements you build, the more entangled you will be with them.  That is the reality the next American ambassador to Israel will be facing, and the president elect’s administration will be dealing with.  Wishing otherwise will not make it go away.  So I hope they recognize that reality soon, and I wish them the very best of luck in dealing with one of the most difficult diplomatic dilemmas of modern times –

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