Tag Archives: Bob Dylan

R E S P E C T

The new issue of Rolling Stone just arrived in the mail (am I the only rabbi in the country with a lifetime subscription to Rolling Stone?!) and Aretha Franklin is on the cover.  A gorgeous shot of her, probably from when she was in her late 20s or early 30s.  She was called the Queen of Soul for a reason.  She had a powerful presence and charisma, and she was a true artist, with a voice that comes along only once in a generation.

Her signature song will always be RESPECT.  Who can ever forget the incredible staccato darts of her voice, shouting out the letters one at a time, while the band behind her laid down a classic Motown groove, all shivering and shaking?  She demanded respect and she earned it, but it wasn’t easy.  It was a long road, twists and turns, ups and downs, but she never stopped.  RESPECT.

It seems more than ironic that Aretha has passed from this world to the next precisely at a time when the sense of respect that she so memorably sang about is virtually impossible to find. I write these words just a few days after the Senate has concluded processing the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination.  The deliberations were torturous at best, but also riveting.  Americans were simultaneously fascinated and horrified, both compelled and repelled.  We tuned in, we read the papers, we watched the late night news shows, we listened to the radio coverage – we were drawn to the event like flies to a carcass.

And regardless of which side you were on, whether you believed him or her or some combination of both, whether you knew that he was lying or wondered if she was misremembering, what was definitively lacking in all of the proceedings was any sense of respect.  Instead the Senate, a once (at least in legend) austere and cordial body, was reduced to a caricature of one of the Fox News shows where people scream at each other, all the while belittling and insulting those with whom they disagree.

It would be helpful to us all to remember that respect, or lack of it, is not a political issue.  It is not ‘political’ to expect one person to treat another respectfully, whether that person is a Senator, a Supreme Court nominee, or the President of the United States.  It is that fundamental lack of respect that we now see at every level that degrades us all, our communities, our culture, our country.  It certainly degraded the Senate over these last few days, and the entire nomination of a Supreme Court justice.  How any of it will ever be cleaned up is beyond me.

What I worry about most is that we are all slowly being dragged down to that low level.  That, almost without realizing it, our language is becoming coarser and our anger more intense  That our ability to listen to one another is slowly but surely slipping away.  It is a downward trajectory, and the deeper we go, the harder it gets to climb out.  These lyrics from the classic Bob Dylan song ‘The Times They are A-Changin’ come to mind:

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’.
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.

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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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The Upside Down

One of the most popular TV shows in the country over the last few months has been the Netflix sci-fi/mystery/retro (early 1980s!!)/buddy series called Stranger Things.  The show follows the adventures of a group of young teens as they try to save a friend who has been captured by a monster and taken to a parallel universe (sounds simple, right?).  Called the Upside Down, this strange place is eerily like our own world, but everything there is dark and twisted.  A clean pool of clear water is murky and filled with weeds in the Upside Down.  The beautiful forest of our world is filled with rotted trees entangled in lichen there.  Horrible monsters lurk behind every corner, and danger crouches at every doorstep.  It is our world, with everything gone wrong.

So perhaps it is no coincidence that so many Americans were watching Stranger Things during the last grinding and depressing months and weeks of election 2016.  The show seems like a fitting prelude to where we’ve arrived.  A real estate mogul turned reality TV celebrity with no previous governing experience and a bad Twitter habit is poised to enter the Oval Office.  He has installed a far right wing conspiracy theorist conjurer as his chief advisor.  The soon to be vice president’s mantra is “I am a Christian first!”  And reports surfaced just today that Rudy Giuliani, the erstwhile mayor of NYC and current channeler of hyperbole is actually being considered for the position of Secretary of State.  Of the United States of America, that is.  Have we somehow, without even knowing it, fallen into our own version of the Upside Down?  As crazy as that sounds, aren’t the other sentences in this paragraph even crazier?  And they are all true.

I can’t help but think of the moment when the Frankenstein monster rises from the table, violently infused with life by the power of lighting, an angry and lashing energy that appears seemingly from nowhere, destroying everything else it touches.  And surely more than anything else it was anger that brought this new administration to power, the disdain and hurt and boiling fury of millions of Americans who had simply had it with Washington and political gamesmanship.  How destructive that unharnessed energy and anger will ultimately be we won’t know for at least a little while.  But we are going to find out, and there is no going back.

In Bob Weir’s first public appearance since the election, sitting in with the Joe Russo led band JRAD, he passionately sang ‘A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall.’  I am guessing Weir chose the song particularly, as a musical response to the events of last week.  Penned by Bob Dylan and one of his early masterpieces, the lyrics of the song paint the picture of a dystopian world where everything has gone wrong.  The dark and disturbing imagery contrasts sharply with the song’s chorus, warning us all in a prophetic proclamation that there are consequences to these historical moments, and that they can be far reaching.  But the last stanza suggests that we cannot turn away, that in fact we have to walk into the darkness, enter the Upside Down, in order to have a chance to emerge whole.  Stranger Things indeed.  Here are the lyrics:

Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?
I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans
I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son?
And what did you hear, my darling young one?
I heard the sound of a thunder, it roared out a warnin’
Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world
Heard one hundred drummers whose hands were a-blazin’
Heard ten thousand whisperin’ and nobody listenin’
Heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin’
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Oh, who did you meet, my blue-eyed son?
Who did you meet, my darling young one?
I met a young child beside a dead pony
I met a white man who walked a black dog
I met a young woman whose body was burning
I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow
I met one man who was wounded in love
I met another man who was wounded with hatred
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Oh, what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what’ll you do now, my darling young one?
I’m a-goin’ back out ’fore the rain starts a-fallin’
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

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Dylan and the Nobel

This a text version of my remarks about Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize award from Shabbat morning 10/15

Robert Zimmerman was a Jewish boy from a small town in Minnesota, gifted with an artistic vision and a powerful spirit of rebellion, who made his way from the hinterlands of America to New York City’s Greenwich Village.  The folk scene there was bursting at the seems, a writhing and living organism of creativity and cross pollination.  The Kingston Trio, clean cut and ready for a high school year book photo, was singing Tom Dooley.  Pete Seeger popularized If I had a Hammer.   Joan Baez reached the top of the charts in 1960, and Peter, Paul, and Mary were playing the coffee houses and cafes.  Robert Zimmerman arrived on the scene like stranger coming to town in a western, trailed by a mysterious past, and ultimately leaving behind his given name to become Bob Dylan.

In a few short years he was the biggest musical star in the world, almost a prophet to the young people in the mid 60s who looked to music for guidance and spiritual sustenance.  The hit records came one after another, too many to name, and the songs he wrote became a generational soundtrack.  He had various periods – a folk period followed by an electric period when he began to use amplified instruments.  There was Christian period when for a time he seemed to embrace Christianity, or at least many of its ideals on his record Slow Train Coming.  There was a return to Judaism, Dylan davening with tallit and tefillin at the Kotel in Jerusalem.  After a motorcycle accident he withdrew from the public eye and regrouped.

But he always came back, he always reappeared.  There were always new songs to sing and play.  He was restless, his mind jumping from idea to idea, his gaze soaking up the American scene, and somehow spitting it back out with song lyrics that sometimes seemed to be divinely inspired, some kind of uber-muse working through Dylan’s inscrutable eyes.  There were songs of social conscience like ‘the Times They Are a Changing,’ or ‘Blowing in the Wind.’  There were protest songs like ‘Highway 61 Revisited,’ and there were powerful personal portraits of love and longing, of loss and the sheer determination to survive against all odds.

To know that he came from Jewish roots is to recognize the prophetic pull of the tradition in his themes and music.  He sang about justice and truth, the power of the human spirit, and freedom.  All Jewish ideals, all concepts that distinguished ancient Israel from its neighbors.  And Dylan was a seeker, somehow discovering the way to drill down to the very core of an idea or issue or emotion, to uncover the truth, and then to lay it bare before our eyes, without flinching or turning away, and daring us to look at what he had uncovered.  In this search for truth he was reflecting the biblical prophets of old, their fiery spirit and unforgettable words, still read and chanted 2000 years or more after they were spoken.

Bob Dylan has been no saint.  He was always mercurial, often obscure, he was iconoclastic, complicated, and sometimes downright ornery and cantankerous.  But his talent was undeniable, and I would argue it was primarily expressed through his words.  The music was mostly made up of simple chords, songs with traditional musical progressions, classic folk and blues riffs and even melodies that had been played and replayed for decades.  But his language was unique and entirely original, and this was his genius.  The often dense and symbolic lyrics that he composed to express in timeless language the very moments, emotions, and ideas that define our lives.

It is because of that unique gift with words, words that changed music, words that defined a generation, that Bob Dylan was presented with the Nobel Prize in literature this week.  There has been some controversy about the choice – after all, he is a musician and not a writer, some have argued.  Others have said that rock and roll should never been considered on the same cultural level as the great novel or beautiful poetry.  But if the prize at its core is about how the words of an artist can both shape and change the world, then it seems to me hard to argue, for few artists in modern times have shaped and changed the world through words the way Bob Dylan has.

Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the Nobel was awarded to Dylan the very week that we are reading two of the greatest biblical songs ever composed.  In the Torah portion we read Moses’ last message to the Israelites, a song of warning and a powerful charge to the people to stay true to the task at hand as they enter the promised land. And in this morning’s haftara text we read King David’s great hymn of victory and thanksgiving, with its soaring language, its metaphors of darkness and light, and its imagery of the great hand of God drawing David from the rushing mighty waters.  In both cases the biblical poetry is a testament to the lasting power of song, and an example of how language, in the hands of the greatest artists, can create work of enduring, and sometimes even eternal value.

I don’t mean to suggest that Bob Dylan’s work should be considered on the same level as that of the Hebrew Bible or Shakespeare or Milton.  Those authors were some of the greatest geniuses of literature in all of human history, artists who changed not only their own time but all the time to come, and who helped us to see ourselves in a new light, with a deeper understanding of what it means to be human.  And maybe 100 years from now people will look back at Dylan’s body of work and see him as a simple traveling minstrel with an electric guitar.

But the Nobel Prize is not of the past or the future.  It is of our time.  And as we Jews qvell when a Jewish scientist or novelist or economist wins the Nobel Prize, so too we should be qvelling this week.  Fifty six years ago a young Jewish boy from Hibbing Minnesota walked onto the world’s biggest stage.  He is still standing there, and he has never looked back.

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Negativity Won’t Pull You Through

this a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 5/21/16

With the Preakness this weekend and Memorial Day just around the corner in a presidential election year we know that it is only a matter of time before we are confronted with ad after ad, phone call after phone call, and email after email for the candidates in the race.  We also know from experience that a significant percentage of the publicity will be negative, what we commonly call today attack ads against the candidates.  This is an unfortunate and unpleasant part of the political process, but it is also seemingly unavoidable today, just part and parcel of the way running for office works in this country.

But the truth is the negative ads are only a small part of what the candidate has to deal with.  There is an intensive vetting that happens with every presidential candidate, a detailed examination of every recorded statement, tweet (in Donald Trump’s case), email (in Hillary Clinton’s case), business deal, taxes, public position taken, the list goes on and on.  In essence if you are running for president you are subjecting every aspect of your life – in many ways both public and private – to detailed scrutiny.  And the process really just has one intended purpose, which is to expose any flaw – any defect – in Hebrew any מום – that a candidate might have.

You may not be surprised to find out that this is not a new idea, in fact I would submit to you this morning that it is at least as old as the Torah, which pushes it back some 3,000 years or so.  In this morning’s portion there is a passage that in my mind is one of the most difficult and troubling series of verses anywhere in the entire Bible.  It crops up in the 21st chapter of Leviticus, in a discussion about the types of flaws – מומים in Hebrew – that would automatically disqualify a person from priestly service.  Most of the items on the list are physical in nature – for example if the person is blind, or lame, or even if the person has broken their arm or leg at some point, they are automatically disqualified, and not permitted to serve in the Temple rituals.

You can see why the passage troubles me.  It is in direct conflict with our modern value of inclusivity and our modern understanding that someone who struggles with a handicap can be just as productive a worker as someone who does not, and often more so.  The objection the Torah seems to have to people with these flaws is that either they might distract the worshippers, or the physical limitation they struggle with might limit their ability to properly perform their duties, and the truth is sometimes the priestly responsibilities were of a physical nature.   One way or another it certainly does remind us that the idea of scrutinizing a potential leader, a public servant, of looking for that person’s mumim – their blemishes – is something that has been going on for a long, long time.

What might be a little bit different today, however, is the number of blemishes we find in our candidates, and the striking level of unpopularity with which they are perceived.  You may have seen this week a major poll which was released comparing ratings of popularity and unpopularity between the major candidates.  More than half of registered voters have unfavorable views of both candidates – both!  Clinton is viewed unfavorably by 52% of registered voters.  And Trump is even worse, unfavorably viewed by 55% of voters.  What that means is that the majority of voters looking at the election are seeing two candidates that they don’t like, and that many people don’t feel entirely comfortable voting for.

But the truth is even before the poll came out I could have told you this.  My evidence is only anecdotal, it would not hold up to statistical analysis.  That being said I have had person after person say to me that they don’t like either candidate, and they don’t know what to do – they don’t feel comfortable voting for either Clinton or Trump.  And my sense is people are actually considering not voting at all – it is like they can’t stomach casting a ballot either way, so they might just sit this one out.

I have two things to say about that – first of all, please don’t sit it out!  Get out and vote, it is not only a privilege of being a citizen of this great country, it is also I think a responsibility, a civic duty, one we should take seriously and fulfill.  Just participating in the process is an affirmation of the core values that drive America, and we should come together on election day to share in those values.  Which is why I believe election day should be a national holiday, like it is in Israel, but that is a sermon for another day.

The second thing I would say is this.  Challenge yourself to make your decision not on negatives, but on positives.  What I mean by that is don’t decide to vote for Trump because you don’t like Hillary.  And don’t decide to vote for Hillary because you don’t like Donald.  Even if you don’t like either candidate, they have positives.  They are accomplished people, in fact two of the most successful people in the world in their chosen fields.  Look for those positives, make a list of them, and compare them.  List out what policies, what issues are most important to you – is it abortion, is it taxes, is it Israel, is it immigration, or health care – list them out, figure out the candidate’s views, and decide which one’s views you like the most, not the least.  And then get out to the voting booth in November, and cast your vote for the next president.  Don’t base that vote on what disqualifies a candidate, on what flaws and blemishes they have – base it on what qualifies them for the job, on what positions they hold or don’t hold, on what characteristics you see in them that would make them a qualified leader.  Not a perfect leader – I think we all know that doesn’t exist.  But the best possible leader we have at this time.

So in the months ahead, as the ads keep coming, as the blemishes  – the mumim – are exposed in the candidates – lets do our best to rise above the negativity.  Some of you may remember the song by Jonny Mercer and the Pied Pipers, memorably recorded by Bing Crosby in 1944 –

You’ve got to – accentuate the positive –

Eliminate the negative –

Latch on to the affirmative

and don’t mess with Mr In Between

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Bernie Trump and Donald Sanders

Of course they come at it from very different perspectives, and they are reaching very different groups.  Trump is all anger and bluster, aggression and pique, the classic 7th grade bully who has learned over time that if you yell loudly enough and confront people with enough strength you’ll often get what you want.  Bernie is in a sense the opposite – the lovable zaydie who cuddles and cajoles (maybe even nudges!), and whose age and experience give people a sense that he might actually know what he is talking about.  Trump plays on xenophobia, he picks fights, he hurls insults, he talks about how bad things are in America.  He says you have to take care of yourself.  Bernie preaches inclusion and hope, common dignity and human rights, dare I say it socialist ideals!, and he speaks of how great America will be.  He reminds us of the responsibility to care for others.

But despite their different personas and perspectives, in some strange way they have tapped into the same vein, albeit a vein in two entirely different bodies.  They are obviously saying things that certain people want to hear.  People who feel disenfranchised, fearful, suspicious, who feel that the current political system is dysfunctional, that the game is rigged, who want someone to speak on their behalf and to say things that other politicians don’t say, and perhaps by extension to (potentially) do things other politicians won’t do.

The old guard, the system,  the ‘corridors of power,’ the suits, the man, call it what you will – they have all been taken by surprise.  Can you imagine what Hillary is thinking?  “Again?!!”  The great line from Dylan’s ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ keeps coming to my mind:  Something is happening, and you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?

Do you?  Does anyone?

The dynamics are exactly the same.  Donald Sanders.  Bernie Trump.  Donie.  Bernald.  But the messages are so vastly different!  What a fascinating presidential race it would be to have such starkly different messages face off!  Imagine presenting America with a plate of Trump and a plate of Sanders, and then asking them to choose between them.   Forget about the liberal-conservative divide!  That is small potatoes compared to a Trump Sanders contest.  Which message would the country buy into, which view would ultimately win the day?

Of course we’ll never know.  Won’t happen.  Can’t imagine we’ll actually get there.  In the end it will be Hillary facing of with Kasich or Cruz or Rubio.  Same old same old.  It will be safer, business as usual, and even worse, politics as usual.  Probably better for everyone in the end.  But my oh my, how boring!  Kind of like driving a long ways round just to get back to the place where you started.  Well, at least the view was interesting.

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The Times They Are A Changin’

Troubling times.  It is getting ugly out there.  Things are being said that we never would have imagined would be said.  Ideas are being floated that are outside the main, beyond the pale, whatever you want to call it, and they aren’t being rejected outright.  Reason is on the retreat, fleeing blindly from fear and irrationality, from bigotry and hatred, from xenophobia, like some lost hiker crashing through the overgrowth and trying to get away from a terrifying pursuer.

Is this how it happens?  A bizarrely twisted confluence of events, words, personalities, that suddenly and shockingly come together at the right (wrong) time in the right (wrong) way, and suddenly we are all going over the cliff.   Like the proverbial lemming.  Follow the leader.  Forget about what is real, thoughtful, sensible, logical, caring, and kind.  Release the better angels of your nature.  Banish them even.  But when you do you must be prepared to live with whatever is leftover.

What to do?  Stay the tide.  Hold the line.  Speak out against the lies and misconceptions that are so easily spoken and all too easily believed.  Go back.  Remember who we are, what we are, what we stand for, how much that means.  Grasp the values that help to make us great.  Name those that will make us small.  Pay attention, keep informed, do not – do not! – put your head in the sand.  This is real, it is serious, and it is seriously dangerous.  For all of us.

Maybe it will pass like a troubled dream, soon fading from memory and leaving only the faintest traces of psychic discomfort.  But it feels different this time, and that should be acknowledged, not ignored.

These lyrics from the great Bob Dylan’s classic song ‘the Times They are a Changin’ ring true in a new way:

Come gather round people wherever you roam; and admit that the waters around you have grown; and accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone;  If your time to you is worth saving, then you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone;  for the times they are a changin’

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