Tag Archives: exodus

Transmitting Tradition

This appeared in today’s (1/19) Baltimore Jewish Times –

A central concern of Jewish life has always been the transmission of the tradition from one generation to the next.  This is clear from the Torah’s narratives about the patriarchs and matriarchs, and their struggle, in each generation, to bring children into the world.  The Torah seems to be telling us that the creation of a next generation of Jews, that group that will carry Judaism’s torch into the future, is enormously difficult.  And yet it is the central mission of the Jewish people, for without that next generation the covenant between God and Israel will be broken.

That same challenge was still on the table in the time of Moses, some four hundred years after Sarah and Abraham lived.  At the beginning of Parshat Bo Moses and Pharaoh engage in a series of negotiations about when and how the Israelites might leave Egypt.  Pharaoh has been pushed to the breaking point by the first plagues, and he is ready to give some ground.  “Go, worship the Lord your God!,” he says to Moses and Aaron.  But then he asks an interesting question, almost as an after thought.  “Who are the ones to go?”  Moses’ response is clear:  “We will all go, young and old, our sons and daughters…!”  And suddenly Pharaoh pulls back from his promise.  “You must be crazy if you think I am going to let the children go with you!”  (Exodus 10:8-11, with my own paraphrase translation).

So it seems the real struggle of the Exodus is not about freedom alone.  It is also about continuity, about whether a next generation of Jews will be included in the Exodus moment.  Pharaoh has no trouble letting the Israelite men go, because he knows without their children the ideals of freedom and common dignity they espouse will die out in the wilderness.  But he also knows that if the Israelite children leave Egypt with the adults there is a chance that Judaism and its ideals will be around for a long time, something Pharaoh finds threatening and unacceptable.

Of course we know the end of the story.  As the plagues rain down Pharaoh is forced to acquiesce, and the Israelites leave Egypt en masse, men, women, and children.  In this way Moses averts yet another crises in Jewish continuity.  There will be a next generation of Jews in the wilderness to learn the laws from Moses, to remember the history of the Exodus, and then, when their time comes, to transmit the richness of our tradition to their own children and grandchildren.  Our challenge, from one generation to the next, is to make sure that process of transmission continues.

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Hardening Hearts

this the text version of my Shabbat sermon from 1/16/16 –

There are certain ideas in the Torah that for whatever reason seem to capture people’s attention.  They come back to these ideas again and again, struggling to understand them, learn about them, or come to terms with them.  Perhaps the most obvious example in the Torah is the binding of Isaac story.  But as compelling as that story is, and as well as we know it, I am asked more often about another idea that appears in the narrative of the Exodus.  We find it both in last week’s Torah portion, Va’era, and in this week’s portion, called Bo.

We are all familiar with the story.  In the process of freeing the Israelites from Egypt, God brings a series of how many plagues against the Egyptians? 10!  After each plague Pharaoh is on the verge of letting the people go, fearful that another plague will soon appear.  But each time, before he acts and frees the Israelites, the Torah tells us that Pharaoh’s heart was “hardened”  or “strengthened” and therefore he decided not to let the people go.

What troubles people – what people ask me about each year when we read these stories – is that it seems to be God Who hardens Pharaoh’s heart.  God says as much in a conversation with Moses:  ואני אקשה את לב פרעה “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 7:3)  When I study the text with people, they often ask:  “How could God do that?  Why didn’t God allow Pharaoh to let the people go after the first plague?  It almost doesn’t seem fair, and in the end, the Egyptians paid for it as much as Pharaoh himself.”  In other words, how could a just God, Who created human beings with freedom of choice, not allow Pharaoh to make his own choice, repent, and let the people go?

As is so often the case the classical commentators struggle with the same issues that we modern readers do.  They offer a variety of explanations for this hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.  The medieval exegete Nachmanides cites two different explanations.  The first is that some sins are so destructive they  make repentance impossible.  In this case, Pharaoh was deliberately attempting to destroy the Israelites, and so God did not see fit to grant Pharaoh the free choice enjoyed by others.  Hardening Pharaoh’s heart was a way of ensuring Pharaoh’s punishment would match his crime.

The second explanation that Nachmanides offers is based on a close textual reading.  Although we commonly think that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart after each of the plagues, when we pay careful attention to the text we discover that through the first five plagues God does not do any “heart hardening.”  Instead, Pharaoh seems to be the cause of his own troubles.  For example, after the plague of Arov, wild beasts, the Torah tells us: ויכבד פרעה את לבו – “Pharaoh hardened his own heart.”  So the sense from the first five plagues is that Pharaoh DID have free choice;  but each time, he chose wrongly.  Then by the sixth plague, Pharaoh’s free choice is taken away, and God does indeed begin to harden his heart.

This pattern is something we have probably all seen in our own lives.  A person who makes a series of poor choices, who continues to do the wrong thing time and again by choice, will eventually find themselves in a position where they can no longer choose.  They find themselves in a place where they are boxed in by the behavior they have enacted and the choices and mistakes they have made.  This is something that can happen not only in the lives of individuals, but also in families.

My guess would be we can all probably think of a family we know that struggles with some kind of deep division.  It might be a brother not talking to another brother or sister, it might be a child estranged from a parent, and sometimes it even extends so you’ll have an entire part of a family not communicating with another part of the family.  You may remember one of my favorite scenes from the Barry Levinson film Avalon.  There are two brothers at the heart of the film, Sam and Gabrielle.  It is Thanksgiving day, and Sam and the entire extended family are seated and waiting to eat.  But the Gabrielle and his wife are late.  The family waits and waits, and finally Same tells them to cut the turkey and begin the meal.  A short time later Gabrielle arrives.  He walks in, he sees them eating, and he is outraged.  “You cut the turkey without me!”  he yells again and again, and he storms out.  It is a hysterical scene, but it also cuts to the chase, because many of us have been there.  The question is, how did we get there in the first place?

Believe it or not, all too often the answer to that question is nobody knows.  There was a sleight at some point – the turkey was cut!  And then someone storms out.  The other feels insulted – how could my brother behave that way?  And then both wait for a phone call of apology.  And wait.  And wait some more.  When it doesn’t come, they get angrier, and they begin to remember older hurts and slights which lie just under the surface.  Then they happen to bump into each other at the bank, and both turn their backs, refusing to speak or even make eye contact.  And then the next thing, and the next.  And before you know it, because of a series of choices they made, one after the other, they no longer have a choice – their hearts are hardened.  Like Pharaoh they are boxed in and they can’t get out.  And by the time they get to the rabbi’s office – which they often do – the anger is too deep, the gap too wide, and the hurt too painful for anything to change.

Some of you may remember the author Steven Covey and his best selling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.  That book was required reading when I was at the Seminary, and truth be told I don’t remember all that much from it.  But there was a chapter about personal change, in which the following quote appears:  “Until a person can say deeply and honestly, “I am what I am today because of the choices I made yesterday,” that person cannot say, “I choose otherwise.”

It seems to me the message is clear.  Every choice we make is important in our lives.  Each time we choose, the impact of our decision is not only found in the present – it also potentially carries into the future.  Every poor choice sets us back and makes it harder for us to become the people we are intended by God to be.  Every wise and noble choice moves us forward, and opens up future possibilities of goodness and meaning in our lives, in our families, and in our world.

May we remember that and act upon it every day –

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The Difficult and Daunting Search for God

this a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 1/2/16 –

The young man who came to see me was disappointed with God.  He had always been a good person, doing his best to make the right choices and do the right things, to include dutifully coming to shul over the years when his family expected him to be there.  But some things had gone wrong in his life.  It hadn’t worked out as he had wanted or planned.  There was a career misstep here, and a failed relationship there.  A close friend had been sick and suffered.  He had always been told that God cared and that God took care of us – watched out for us, rewarded our good behavior and punished our bad.  But from what he saw, from what he had experienced, it didn’t work that way.  So he made a decision.  He would never set foot in a shul again.  After all, if God didn’t do what God had promised, why should he bother?  Why should he come to a service where God’s name was invoked, where God’s essence was praised?

This was painful to his family.  Judaism was important to them, synagogue life was important to them, the rhythms of the Jewish year, the holidays, the family dinners, were part and parcel of their lives.  But he would have none of it.  The system, as he understood it, had been proven false.  His heart had become hardened to the traditions and history of our people.

I knew that part of this was my fault.  Not in the sense of something I did wrong, but rather because of the system I represent.  He had gone to Hebrew school, had a bar mitzvah, studied Hebrew and holidays and Jewish history.  And somewhere along the line he had learned about God.  This is what he had learned:  God is somewhere up there in the sky, looking down on us.  God watches us, our day to day lives.  When we ask something of God, God hears our request, and when our request isn’t answered, God has decided not to answer it.  When something goes wrong, when we don’t get what we hope for, when we fail or get sick or suffer a loss, God has allowed the thing that hurts us to happen to us.  That is to say, God could have prevented it, but chose not to.  In essence, he had learned that God is a micromanager, deciding on a case by case basis that some will have success while others will fail, that some will have lives of goodness while others will suffer, that on a given day one person will be in a car accident while another person will be spared.

These ideas are of course not new, and the young man is not the first person to understand God in this way, nor to be disappointed in this God.  The Talmud tells the story of Elisha ben Abuya, one of the great sages of his day, a rising star in the talmudic academy.  But living in Roman times he sees terrible things.  He sees Jews being persecuted.  He sees great sages who are humiliated in front of Roman soldiers.  And one day, says the Talmud, he sees a young boy trying to get eggs from a bird’s nest, high in a tree.  And the boy knows the Torah commands that the mother bird should be sent away before the eggs are taken.  But in trying to get the mother to leave her nest the boy loses his balance and falls to the ground and is killed.  And Elisha ben Abuya, one of the great sages of his time, and perhaps of all time, loses his faith.  How could God let something like this happen?, he thinks.

The young man who came to my office did not know about Elisha ben Abuya, had never heard of him I am sure, but he suffered from the same malady and he subscribed to the same theology.  And he had the same question: how could God let something like this happen?

Being a crafty old rabbi, this was not the first time this question had crossed my desk, this was not the first person to sit in the chair across from me with feelings of anger and disappointment about God, and I knew two things – one, there are answers to that question.  And two, none of the answers is fully satisfactory.  So we talked for a while, and I gave him some of those standard answers, and he paused to think seriously about one or two of them, but I don’t think I’ll be seeing him in shul anytime soon.  The misconceptions he holds about how God works are too deeply ingrained for him to let them go, at least now.  But I thought, as he walked out of my office, if we talk about these things more often and more openly, it might help someone else, who is struggling in the same way, to find a different path, and to feel more comfortable walking into a sanctuary carrying doubts about God.

There is an odd passage in this morning’s Torah portion, the first in the book of Exodus.   The Israelites have been enslaved in Egypt.  They are suffering, and the Torah tells us that they cried out to God, a cry for help, for release from suffering and slavery, and that the cry rose up to God.  And then the Torah tells us that God heard their cry, and that God remembered the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  And then the Torah says this:  וירא ה׳ את בני ישראל וידע ה׳ – Elohim saw the Israelites, and Elohim – God – knew.

There are two things about the passage that strike me, one implied, and the other an unanswered question.  First what is implied – if the Torah tells us that God remembered, it means that at some point God forgot.  God forgot about the Israelites.  God forgot they were in Egypt, that they were slaves, seemingly, that they even existed.  I think this is the Torah’s way of telling us that there will be times in our lives when we will not feel God’s presence.  When we will look for God, call out to God, ask for God’s help, and there will not be a response.  Eventually, God did remember.  But for a long time – ימים רבים the Torah says – for a long, long time, God forgot.

And the second thing that strikes me about the passage – the unanswered question – is this:  what did God know?  If you look at the translation of that verse in your Humash, you’ll see it says “and God took notice of them,” but the Hebrew simply says וידע ה׳ – Elohim knew.  God knew what?  And I think the answer to that question is the very next word in the Torah, a word that you all know – Moshe.  Moses.  God knew that a human being had arrived on the scene who would through his own efforts and actions begin the process of freeing the Israelites.  God wasn’t going to do it.  What changed wasn’t that God was now paying attention to the Israelites when God hadn’t been paying attention before – what changed was that the right person had come.  And because of that God knew that soon the Israelites would be free.

Despite what the young man who came to my office had learned growing up, the tradition often teaches us that God is not a micromanager.  God is not looking at the lives of individuals and deciding that certain prayers will be answered while others will be rejected, that certain hopes will be fulfilled while others will be dashed, that this person will suffer while this other person will be saved.  That is not a God I have seen or known in the course of my life, or through my experience.  But I have known a God who blesses a Moses with the strength, courage, wisdom, and hope to lead a people to freedom.  And I have known a God who gives us as individuals the strength, courage, and hope we need to live our lives, to get up and face another day, to be there for people that we love, and to live with faith.  I tried in my office to introduce the young man to that God that I have known.  I hope that one day they’ll meet.  But my prayer today is that the young man should not stop looking – may he find meaning in his search and each of us in ours –

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In the Image of God

this the text of my shabbat sermon from from 10/11/15

It might seem perfectly logical to us that the Torah begins where it does, with a description of God’s creation of the world – the literal beginning of everything. After all, why not, as we often say, ‘begin at the beginning?’ But there is an interesting argument presented by the sage Rashi in his commentary on the first verse of Genesis, that it might have made more sense to begin the Torah in the book of Exodus. His reasoning is this: if the Torah is a book for the Jewish people, then why not begin it with the history of the Jewish people, which is the Exodus from Egypt?

And the question that Rashi raises stems from a long standing tension in Judaism between what I would call ‘universalism’ and ‘particularism.’ Big words, but fairly straight forward in terms of their meaning. Universalism is the idea that God is God of the entire universe, and that God cares about all people and all nations. Particularism is the idea that God is particularly interested in and concerned about the Jews and the land of Israel. These ideas can work together, but often they are perceived as being in conflict with one another. To get back to our original question about the beginning of the Torah you might think of it like this – if the Torah wanted to emphasize particularism – God’s relationship with the Jews – then it would begin with Exodus and the story of the Jewish people.

But it doesn’t. And by intentionally choosing to begin Judaism’s most sacred text with the story of the creation narrative, the Torah from the very beginning reminds us that the God we are in relationship with as Jews, is also the God that created the entire universe and all people. Think for a moment of the way the Torah describes the creation of the first human beings, Adam and Eve. It is clear in the text that Adam and Eve are not Jewish, and not just the ‘parents’ of the Jewish people. Instead they are the parents of all people, and that would included any faith tradition, any race, any color, any ethnicity. The one thing the Torah is very clear about is that Adam and Eve were crated in God’s image – בצלמינו כדמותינו says the Torah – in our image, in our likeness. And since Adam and Eve are the parents of all people, it means by extension that all people – again, regardless of race, color, religion – are created in the image of God. This idea is central to Judaism, a core tenet of the faith, and is arguably the most important idea that Judaism has ever introduced to the world.

I had a professor in Rabbinical school who once said ‘the Torah doesn’t tell you something you don’t need to know.’ What he meant by that is the reason it says in the Torah לא תגנוב- ‘don’t steal’ – is because, as we all know, people will steal. They have to be told not to. And I think the same idea is operative with the creation story and Adam and Eve. We need to be told that all people are equal, we need to be reminded that all people come from the same place, precisely because it is something we too often forget. Intellectually most people understand the idea, but emotionally they get caught up in all kinds of things. They are afraid of what they don’t know and understand. They will take the radical actions of a small minority and ascribe it to a larger group. They will stereotype, so that certain groups will become in their minds innately lazy, or violent, or stupid, or money hungry. Sometimes these kinds of comments come from a place of hatred or small mindedness, but I believe most of the time they come from a place of ignorance, of simply not knowing enough about the other to fully understand who that person is and how they live in the world.

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve seen two public examples of that kind of ignorance from presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson. As you are probably all aware, the first comment was in response to a question as to whether Dr. Carson believed it was OK for a Muslim to be president of the United States. And he said he did not think a Muslim should be president. He was pretty roundly condemned for that statement, as he should have been. But the fact that he made a statement like that and has nevertheless stayed so high in the polls should make those of us in the Jewish community very uncomfortable. Because there is no difference between saying a Muslim should not be president and saying a Jew should not be president. It is exactly the same thing. It is singling out one religious group, and saying that group does not deserve to have the rights that are extended to all other groups. That statement directly conflicts with the values that this nation was founded on, and it is also clearly against the core value in this morning’s Torah portion, that all human beings are equal, created in the image of God.

Dr. Carson’s second statement, just a couple of days ago, was more directly connected to the Jewish community. In a bizarre conversation that conflated questions about gun control with the events of the Holocaust, Carson seemed to suggest that if Jews had had guns during the Second World War, Hitler would not have been able to kill the six million. I would imagine from that statement that Dr. Carson has no knowledge of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, or of the armed Jewish resistance that fought against the Nazis throughout the war.

Now perhaps Dr. Carson is just a fish out of water, and he hasn’t yet learned the political game of talking and saying nothing, or at least of talking and saying nothing that will get you in trouble. He is obviously an intelligent man, I don’t think there is a question about that, but in some ways that makes his comments even more disturbing. When taken together, what he said about Muslims and Jews shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the way the rights of minorities must be vigilantly protected. I would hope that anyone running for president would remember that the United States is a country made up of many races, many ethnic groups, and many faith traditions, and that one of the greatest strengths of this country is the way those various races, ethnicities, and faith traditions have learned to live together and respect one another.

There is a classic statement in the Talmud attributed to the sage Hillel: אם אין אני לי מי לי – if I am not for myself, who will be for me? וכשאני לעצמי מה אני – but if I am only for myself, what am I? The Jewish community here in America has done very well with the first part of Hillel’s phrase. We strongly defend ourselves and our rights, and we are intensely vigilant for even the slightest hint of anti-semitism, as we should be. But the second half of the phrase – if I am only for myself, what am I – is also crucial to the integrity of the Jewish community. First of all because Torah teaches us that we have a duty as Jews to care about others, especially those who are marginalized. But the second reason is because if the rights of one minority group are challenged or threatened, then the rights of another minority group won’t be far behind. So when misguided statements are made about Jews, we must speak out, and we do. But when misguided statements are made about other religious or ethnic groups – our responsibility to speak out is just as important. This morning’s Torah reading reminds us of the power and importance of that idea. Let us remember it throughout the year and beyond –

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What Really Happened at the Red (Reed) Sea – 7th day Passover sermon text

     The Bible is a book that is filled with miracles, descriptions of events that are supernatural – outside of the natural order of the world as we know it.  In Numbers 22 we have the story of Balaam and his talking donkey.  In 1 Kings chapter 17 Elijah brings a boy back to life, and 2 Kings chapter 4 the prophet Elisha does the same thing.  Elijah also stops rain from falling for a period of 3 years.  In the Book of Joshua, the 10th chapter, Joshua stops the sun in the middle of the sky, where it stays for an entire day without moving.  In Numbers chapter 20 Moses makes water flow from a rock.  In 2 Kings chapter 5 the soldier Naaman is cured of leprosy.  In chapter 6 of that same biblical book the prophet Elisha makes the iron head of an axe float on the water.  And of course who could forget the dramatic description in Joshua chapter 6 of the walls of Jericho coming down?

     And then we have the Passover story, where the miracles seem to come one after another after another.  Moses’ staff turns to a snake and back.  The plagues – the waters of the Nile turn to blood, the locusts, the boils, the cattle, the vermin, the darkness, the slaying of the first born.  But the ‘wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles,’ to quote a well known song, has to be the splitting of the Reed Sea that we read about in the Torah this morning.  The 7th day of Passover has long been understood in the tradition as the day on which the Israelites witnessed that greatest of miracles, as at the very moment of their despair the waters of the sea parted before them, allowing them to escape their Egyptian tormenters who would all drown while attempting to follow them.

     Still to this day the depiction of that moment in the 1956 Cecil B. Demill film the Ten Commandments compellingly portrays how dramatic those events were.  Charlton Heston as Moses stands on an outcropping of rock, terrified Israelites all around him.  In what I can only call a Moses like voice he cries out, raises his staff, and the sea begins to split, the rushing waters defying the laws of physics, drawing upwards and away, forming massive walls of water and leaving a wide, dry path through the sea that Israelites can walk on.  It is one of the great scenes in all of film, and even today, in an age of astonishing computer generated video images, there are few scenes that can equal it.

     In the Torah that incredible moment is described in just two biblical verses.  “Moses held out his arm over the sea, and the Lord drove back the sea with a strong east wind all that night, and turned the sea into dry ground.  The waters were split, and the Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.”

     I’ve always felt that in those two verses there are actually two descriptions of the splitting of the sea and how it might have happened.  It is the second description – והמים להם חמה מימינם ומשמואלם – the waters were for them like walls, one on their right, one on their left – that is the miraculous one, reflecting Demill’s vision of the moment in the movie.  This is supernatural, impossible, a true miracle.  Massive amounts of water, held in suspension for hours upon hours, the walls, as depicted in the movie, 30, 40, 50 feet high.  There is only one way this could have happened, and that is because God willed it to happen.  And it was a one time event, its like will never be seen again.

     But the first of the two verses in the Torah, at least in my mind, seems to describe an entirely different set of circumstances.  God drove back the sea ברוח קדים עזה כל הלילה – with a strong east wind, that blew all night long.  As many of you know Becky and I spend some time every summer in Gloucester MA, where Becky grew up.  There is a beach there on the what is called the ‘Back Shore’ where a large island sits out in the ocean, about 50 or 60 yards from shore.  Most days, when the time is right and the tide is low, a sandbar emerges from the water that makes a bridge between the shore and the island and hundreds of people walk out to the island to hunt for sand crabs and shells.  The bridge is there for a couple of hours, and then the waters return – you have to get off the island and back to shore before that happens!  It is not uncommon, walking out to that island, that a stiff wind comes up, pushing the water off the sand, rippling it into the sea on either side.  And I’ve often thought, watching that happen, or walking in that procession myself, that it is probably very similar to what the Israelites experienced at the Reed Sea, at least according to that first verse.

     Along those same lines, just a few years ago, the US National Center for Atmospheric Research performed a study using a computer simulation that there is a point in the Nile River where a coastal lagoon lies just under the waters.  And again, using computer simulation, they showed that a strong wind, blowing for hours onto that spot, could drive the water back, opening a land bridge that would enable people to walk across.  And of course, when you take the wind away, the waters rush back in.  The head author of the study, when interviewed about it, said that the results from the simulations match closely with the description of the event in Exodus that we read from the Torah this morning.  It is in a way a combination of two of our favorite modern sayings:  timing is everything, and?  location, location, location.

     Now as western educated, scientifically oriented people we might be more comfortable with the idea of a natural explanation for the splitting of the sea.  But I want to say this:  just because there is a possible natural explanation does not mean it was not a miracle.   I will tell you that when I walk on that momentary land bridge out to that island in Gloucester, I understand scientifically what is happening.  The tide is low, the sand bar is there waiting to be exposed, the wind adds the rippling effect that makes the waters look like they are being pealed back.  But knowing all that, it is still a breathtaking thing to watch, and when you walk over that sand out to the island that just 30 minutes before was surrounded by the ocean, there is something about it that feels miraculous.  A miracle does not have to be an event that suspends the laws of nature.  But it does have to be an event that in some powerful and profound way makes you feel the presence of God in the world.  

     That is why I like to order of the verses in the Torah.  It is the first verse that gives us the natural explanation – the wind blew all night, and over a period of time the sand was exposed.  The people began to walk across, but as they did they began to experience that moment as a true miracle in their lives, a sign that God was with them, paying attention to their fate, coming to help them in their darkest moment, and as they felt God’s presence the moment felt more and more miraculous, and the second verse expresses that – the great walls of water, suspended on either side, and God’s great hand doing that work.

     That moment left such a deep impression on our ancestors that they not only experienced it as a miracle, but they passed it down to us, through the generations, that we might also feel God’s presence in our lives because of the freedom that was granted to them so long ago.  And that fact that we still do, thousands of years later, is in and of itself a miracle to be celebrated.

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