Traveling up and down a ladder… the Torah portion of Vayetze

One again, the complex three-way relationship between us, The Land and “outside the Land” come into play in this week’s Torah reading. Jacob runs away Esau, his brother, who was going to kill him for stealing his blessing. But then, there are so many places Jacob could go. Even the ancient midrash tells us that Jacob did not go directly but stopped on the way at a yeshiva to study for 14 years. What?! That sounds fantastical! A yeshiva? back then?? But the writers of the midrash might want to tell us something. One, that he was learned and seeped in spirituality, and the other, that there were other places where he could be safe. Indeed, this portion is not called Vayivrach, “and he escaped” but Vayetze -“and he went out” implying a deliberate departure.

So maybe he had to travel so far north in order to get himself a wife? But then, he too could have sent a messenger, like his grandfather did when it was time to marry his father to his mother, especially since it’s not like he is looking to marry a stranger. Chances are, someone could have brought him the right woman, and do so with much less trouble than he’s gotten himself into.
So why go?!
One of our earliest descriptions of Jacob (Genesis 25:27) is that he is “ish tam” – a totally dedicated man (Rav Hirsch’s translation); a quiet man (Mechon Mamre), wholesome (the Stone Chumash). Jacob is not restless, not running around in the field seeking game. He dwells in the tent (yoshev, as in “sitting”, being stable). He is wholehearted, complete. At a young age, he’s reached life’s goal of peace and tranquility, like a noble yogi. From here on, life should have been coasting for him.

This is when he is forced to leave that place where everything is “perfect” for him, and go; go live with a person who is deceitful, greedy, manipulative and evil, and still, not a faraway enemy but part of the family, as if emphasizing that all these qualities are not somewhere “else” far away but right at home, within. Jacob has to face this other world, learn to be “in it but not of it”; he has to learn to find G-d in everything, everywhere. Only then, he is ready to go back. Only then, he will become Yisra’el, the one who struggles with (hu)man and G-d and prevails.

Jacob’s journey begins with a famous dream about a ladder, a way to connect heaven and earth, with rungs. Some say that when we go outside of the Land of Israel, we go to a place where heaven and earth are separated, unlike in the Land where they are together. On the edge, he dreams of a way to connect the two wherever he is. The angels who climb up imply that there were angels with him, on the ground already. Some say that perhaps there were actually two ladders: one, reaching to the heavens and one – to the ground, and that the journey between them is like inside a giant “figure-eight”, we’re going up, almost touching the highest-highs, but then going-falling down, almost touching the lowest-lows, then back… the endless movement, and the magical meetings along the way, is what connects the worlds around us.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

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Thanksgiving in Israel and more – the Torah portion of Toldot

In about one month we’ll celebrate an event that happens once every 71/2 years: Daf Yomi will come to the end of its current cycle, and, as with the Torah, a new one will begin. Daf Yomi, literally “a daily page” refers to a daily routine of learning one of the 2,711 pages of the Babylonian Talmud in sequence. Over 71/2 years one can, in this way, complete the whole Talmud.

The originator of the idea, Rabbi Moshe Menachem Mendel Spivak, born in 1880 to a family of Chasidim in a town near Warsaw, presented it already in December 1920. In 1923 it was accepted at the First World Congress of Agudath Israel. Initially it was intended only for yeshiva students and scholars, who focus on certain tractates and miss many others, as an encouragement to go through the whole Talmud at least once. Since, it has spread. Tens of thousands of Jews worldwide study in the Daf Yomi program, and over 300,000 participate in the Siyum HaShas, an event celebrating the culmination of the cycle of learning. The Daf Yomi programs have made Talmud study accessible to everyone, adding a unique unifying factor. During that Congress, Rabbi Shapiro, who is credited as its chief promoter, said (and you can hear the accent):

What a great thing! A Jew travels by boat and takes gemara Berachot under his arm. He travels for 15 days from Eretz Yisrael to America, and each day he learns the daf. When he arrives in America, he enters a beis medrash in New York and finds Jews learning the very same daf that he studied on that day, and he gladly joins them. Another Jew leaves the States and travels to Brazil or Japan, and he first goes to the beis medrash, where he finds everyone learning the same daf that he himself learned that day. Could there be greater unity of hearts than this?

Daf Yomi can be studied alone, with a chavruta (study partner), in a daily shiur (class) led by a rabbi or teacher, via a telephone shiur, CD-ROM, or audio and online resources. Classes are held in synagogues, yeshivas, and offices. They also take place in the United States Senate, Wall Street board rooms, and on the Long Island Rail Road, in the last car of two commuter trains departing Far Rockaway at 7:51 am and 8:15 am, respectively, for Manhattan. On my last flight to the U.S., I found the voice of my favorite Daf Yomi teacher, piped into the in-flight sound system.

Daf Yomi is not easy. Quite often my jaw drops as I listen to challenging Talmudic concepts which are hard to understand and absorb. For example, this past week, we find (Nidah 35:a): “And here they [the rabbis] disagree with regard to whether one interprets instances of the word et in a verse”. The topic itself doesn’t matter so much and is a bit disgusting. We’re talking about a variety of bodily discharges. In an effort to understand what is included and what are the consequences for coming in contact with them, the sages try to figure out which words in the sentence should we pay attention to. This gets complicated because in Hebrew, before a known direct object, we have a little word – et. It seems to serve no purpose short of grammatical confusion, but for some of the rabbis, since every letter and every word matter, there can’t be anything “useless”, and the “et’s” might mean something. Nowadays, we no longer deal with all the bodily discharges they did; we have no temple, no offerings, and no sacrifices. But we still wonder, to what resolution do we dive during a dialog? When I add a “seemingly useless word’, or the primeminister does, do we view it the same way? What weight do we give to “small, insignificant” things? That we do? That others do to us? When studying, I worry less about the discharges (for example) and rather, think of it as learning the language my people think. Slowly, a door opens and I’m home.

*******

Thanksgiving in Israel…

Thanksgiving in Israel? There are rumors that somewhere there is an area of “Americans” –  Jerusalem, Ra’anana etc, they meet to have a festive dinner which coincides with the “4th Thursday of November”. Otherwise, largely no one heard about it. I’m “ok” with it. After all, I’m busy here, and at times, still pinch myself in disbelief. I’m actually here, and therefore, make no special plans. As my kids remind me, leaning vegan and vegetarian, we don’t have a tradition of “turkey”, and yet, there’s something: a lazy morning, a meal, togetherness, on the backdrop of a brisk fall day, maybe first snow on nearby mountains, and time to travel in the beautiful outdoors. And then it hits me.

Being in Israel, one is robbed of something incredibly Jewish, perhaps even incredible essential and needed, something one has everywhere else (Jewishly speaking), and that is, Longing. But once one’s kitchen sink is here, the ability to “long” for somewhere, to miss, to wish for that “wow” promised land which is elsewhere, far away, wrapped in memory and hope, is — gone. Is it possible to long for the longing? Then there’s Thanksgiving, a day when it’s “legal” to miss another place, and what a relief, it’s still possible to feel.

*******

Twins are born to us this week in the Torah portion of Toldot. Yitzchak loves Esau, and Rivkah – loves Yaakov. Esau’s name shares its letters with “asui” – עשוי = עשיו, complete, done, in a sense of – what you see is what you get. Yaakov’s name comes from follower, also crooked (והיה העקב למישור). Yitzchak loves Esau “for there’s hunting in his mouth” (Genesis 25:28).

Esau is worldly and capable, often called the “gadol”, the big one. Rivkah loves Yaakov, “the little one” for no obviously stated reason, Yet. Yaakov is smooth, as if “not done”, implying the need to grow, to move from “crooked” to “straight” (yashar – like yis’ra-el), and at times to be able to hold both. In all that, Rivkah “gets it”. She therefore brings a new dimension which Yitzchak, the boy almost sacrificed and now blind, does not have and so badly needs: not only her endless kindness and boldness, but a daring belief in the unknown, the hidden, the potential; an ability to see – and believe- in the “future”.

Shabbat Shalom & best wishes for the upcoming month of Hanu-Kislev.

 

 

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Abraham’s children in the Galil – The Torah portion of Chayey Sarah

Around the months of October to December there are extra traffic jams throughout the Galil. Shortly after sunset, long rows of cars meander through the winding roads, as those busy with the mesik – olive picking – unable to continue working in the dark orchards, harry to the local beit bahd, where one’s olives can be turned into oil. People show up with anything from a truck load to a private sedan, sagging to the ground, proudly unloading their buckets and bags. The whole process is intense and exciting. No longer operated by horse or donkey who turned a big branch which gave the place its name (bahd being that hefty branch) and was tied to a big round rock that crushed the olives on another giant round rock, batei bahd are now modernized, run by sophisticated mechanical equipment. The olives are placed on a long conveyor belt to be sorted from leaves and small branches, then washed and cleaned, before transferred on (mechanically, no hands) to be crushed, then processed through centrifuges that further separate the water and “meat” in the olives from the oil in them. Finally, the sought out greenish-goldish thick liquid comes out, smelling like delicious freshly cut grass.

At times, the wait can be extremely long. If you’re after that truck, have a coffee. And maybe a shaky plastic cup overflowing with bubbly Coca-Cola. And how about another coffee. And maybe a piece of honey dripping, cheezie kenaffe (sweet Arabic dessert)? Indeed, a number of the big batei bahd (plural for the oil-pressing places) are in Arabic villages. At times, the “conflict” and “situation” seem endless with no way out. And at times, Yishmael and Yitzchak are sitting together, drinking strong Turkish coffee, talking about this and that and nothing in particular, waiting for the noise to calm down and the oil to drip out.

The Torah in this week’s reading, reminds us that later in their lives, without “outside” input and when left to achieve a common task or goal, Yishma’el and Yitzchak get along peacefully and can easily get it done. It’s very possible they even like each other; that they learn to let each be who he is, appreciating their very different, though possibly complimentary, gifts. Olives and olive oil have always been symbolic of peace and pure light. Maybe that’s a place to start shining nowadays too.

*******

This week’s reading, Chayey Sarah – “The Life of Sarah”, opens with Sarah’s death, and Abraham seeking to conduct the first significant Land purchase in our history; that of a burial place for her, an achuzat kever. Rabbi Hirsch (19th century Germany) shares a beautiful explanation, and so he writes:
“To interpret “achuza” as “property”, because the object is held – ne’echaz (like the ram in the binding,which is from same root as achuza) is a mistaken interpretation. Achuza refers exclusively to land property, which is precisely what cannot be held. Further, in the instances the verb is used, the object (i.e. the land) is not held by its owner but rather – the owner is held by the object…. Land holds its owner, and he is bound in its chains… This is also the reason why a person cannot take an oath on the land. This is because land outlines the person; the person is subordinate to the land rather than the land being subordinate to the person. Hence, he cannot subordinate the existence of the soil to the truth of his word”…
Likewise, Abraham wants a permanent place in the Land, a place that will stay in the family long after he is gone. A place, that is not so much for her, as it is for him and future generations.

Shabbat Shalom.

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Sirens and Silence – The Torah Portion of Vayera

Tuesday morning; restless, crowded Ashkelon train station. 6:33am, announcement: “All trains south are canceled due to the “situation”; trains north proceed as usual”.

6:38am: Blood curdling sharp siren cuts through the air. Another announcement: “we just heard a “real” siren (az’akat emet); everyone down to the underground passage for shelter”.

6:40am announcement: “The train to Ra’anana will leave at 6:42am as usual”.

6:41am: “The 6:42am train is canceled; next train is at 6:56am”

6:50am: A train enters the station, followed by an announcement: “please do not board the train”.

6:51am: People click the doors open, board and grab a seat.

6:56am: The train leaves the station, crawling north, among plowed fields, beautiful orchards, well-cared-for greenhouses, an “iron-dome” post, colorful bougainvillea decorating the fences, white buildings on the horizon… It’s painfully slow but moving. The passengers go back to their newspapers, books, phone-calls, computers. One person pulls out a siddur to daven Shacharit though I think she’s been praying all along.

8:00am: The train enters Tel Aviv. A deep sigh can be felt, then sirens wail through the air again. This time there is no shelter to go to. “Everyone away from the window”. People remain incredibly calm; some don’t even budge. I’m back home. Good morning, Israel.

********

The Torah portion of Veyera is a favorite, with Abraham modeling hospitality and praying, pleading to save Sodom and Gamorah, and… oh well, a bunch of other stories we might skip: what is Abraham doing with his son? What’s going on between and him and Sarah? And what’s this strange story about Lot and his daughters??

Genesis 19:30-38 meets us after the destruction. Sodom and Gomorrah were not spared; Lots’ wife turned into a pillar of salt. AS far as Lot knows, and especially as far as his daughters know, there’s no one left in the world to parent children and beget future generations with them, except their father. The world is full of ashes and silence. One after the other, first the older one, then the younger one, they make him drink wine (which somehow they took in this hasty escape -?) to lie with him and “maintain their seed”. They both become pregnant and bare each a son: one names her son Mo’av and one – Ben Ami, father of the people of Amon.

There are many questions about this strange story, but perhaps one stands out: their father was drunk, asleep and unaware, and the two of them had a “secret”. Just keep it! Why tell?? And why tell is so loudly through the names of their children?? It was a s if they stood up to say, ‘look at me and look at what I did’! and, further: these are the families that, according to our tradition, were ancestors to the Messiah??!!

Rav Moshe Feinstein tells about a man in his congregation who “bad-mouthed” Lot’s daughters, to say there were a shanda / shame, and how dare they not even be embarrassed, shy and quiet about their act. Later than night, two old women showed up in his dream, and told him they were Lot’s daughters. They said, that indeed, they could have said that they were of Abraham’s family, and therefore, they deserved Divine intervention, so that they experienced a miraculous conception! But instead, they told the truth. They were forthcoming, proud and accepting of who they were and what they had to do. For all these reasons, these were the mothers of the Messiah.

And so it goes. Over the many centuries that passed, we could have cleaned up the story already; changed it to say what is PC and what will get more “points” and support, but we have not, and I hope we never will. Let there remain some weird stories we don’t fully understand; that force us to struggle to make sense of; that make us think on, and on.

Shabbat Shalom.

Pillar of Salt - Lot's Wife

 

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And the journey begins… the Torah portion of Lech Lecha

עשרה נסיונות נתנסה אברהם אבינו עליו השלום ועמד בכולם להודיע כמה חיבתו של אברהם אבינו עליו השלום
“With ten tests our father Abraham was tested” – The rabbis tell us in Pirkei Avot (5:3) – “and he withstood them all–in order to make known how great was our father Abraham’s love [for G-d]”.
The “tests” aim to answer some questions (why did G-d choose Abraham; why does it say ‘all of a sudden’ (in Genesis 22:1) that “G-d tested Abraham”) but leave many more unanswered. There is no agreement on what exactly are the ten tests, not to mention that we struggle to explain why would G-d “test” anyone, let alone Abraham, when, by definition, G-d already knows everything. Either way, although commentators differ on some of the tests, they all agree that the last one was the akeida, the Binding of Isaac.
After the akeida G-d doesn’t speak to Abraham again. Some say that this is because Abraham failed, and G-d doesn’t want anything to do with those who are willing to sacrifice their children; while others says that Abraham passed all the tests with flying colors, and therefore, G-d didn’t need to give him anymore personal instructions, worthy to be recorded in the Torah.
But, maybe there’s a third option.
it seems as if the first time we hear about Arbaham’s life is in the opening verses of this week’s Torah portion, with the famous “Lech Lecha” command and the beginning of Abraham’s journey, but in fact, Abraham is already introduced at the end of last week’s Torah portion, Noah (Genesis 11:26-32).

There we learn that Abraham is a Hebrew, as Joseph, his great-grandson will tell about himself much later, that he came from the “Land of the Hebrews” (Genesis 40:15). It seems like this (the Land of Israel / Canaan) is where the Hebrews lived before. And now, after years in the diaspora as well as a rough antisemitic spell that included throwing people into burning ovens (which is how his brother, Haran, died), the family is thinking about going back to their homeland. On the verge of annihilation, Abraham, then Abram, takes a wife, Sarai, and Nachor takes to a wife her sister, Milkah, both daughters of Haran, possibly to continue the family and / or because there was no one else to marry. At this point it seems that, of Abraham’s family, 1/3 died in the “ovens”; 1/3 stayed abroad, in “Aram-erika”, and 1/3 opted to “make aliya” and continue to the homeland… this might sound eerily familiar to what we’ve seen in the last century, when also, “coincidentally”, Abraham was born in 1948 of the Jewish calendar…

But what is perhaps most noticeable is that after an extensive list of begets, we are told that “Sarai was barren, she had no child” (Genesis 11:30). Is she is barren And has not child, how will the people continue? It’s as if an early hint was dropped: the story of this People is going to be miraculous; it’s going to proclaim the unnatural’s presence in the world, or – that of G-d.

This is perhaps, another reason why G-d only speaks to Abraham after he marries Sarah, and indeed, the last time G-d speaks to Abraham is at the akeida, which coincides with Sarah’s death. Which means, that G-d never speaks to Abraham without Sarah. In my metaphor, Abraham and Sarah can be likened to a radio and antenna. He might be the one doing all the talking, but without the antenna, there is no reception at all.

Abraham and Sarah don’t have an easy life. Theirs is not the peaceful ride into the sunset, with the “they lived happily ever after” caption shmeared across their screen. Once, even G-d Himself had to intervene in their disputes, but what it did have, was an almost constant dialog with G-d, and how to bring His presence into the world. Maybe this is something worth having an argument or two over.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

 

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Remembering = Love: the Torah portion of Noah

Noah 2019

“Journniversary”:

October 30, 1984. Goodbye hugs at the “old” Ben Gurion airport; a giant backpackers backpack towering over my head; sleeping-bag tied below; winter coat for trekking in Nepal; shorts for the islands of Thailand; malaria pills; cassettes with Israeli songs recorded off the 4 o’clock “best hour” on the radio; a Walkman; notes on the route; a journal.

Dear journal, it will be 8 months before I’m back here again; my stomach is in knots; I packed everything… did I pack everything? Why am I doing this, travel, leave? I love this place; I tour guide and teach teens to love it too… Dear journal, only 8 months to loop around the world and so much to see!! I’m so excited!! Soooo excited!! I can’t wait to get on the plane already and visit all these exotic sites I saw in pictures from the National Geographic! And take a break from this little “bathtub” where everyone knows who I am and what I could / should / would do since before I was born; ok, ok, enough with the teary goodbyes and sticky hugs; one more sandwich for the road… Only 8 months! less than a year!! I’ll be back before you know it….

The Jewish people celebrate their journey anniversary every year with lengthy stories, food, drinks… Mine, of course, was celebrated on a flight. 35 years later, and not a day older… I am back.

 

NOAH

Which is worse: actions of humans against humans or actions of humans against G-d? This week’s Torah portion allows us a quick comparison: Noah’s generation does excessive evil against each other, while the Tower of Babel story, tells of people’s actions against G-d and of their desire to be “bigger” than Him. At the latter events, G-d semi-smiles. Though saddened by the people’s idea and efforts to eliminate Him from their lives, He is confident enough about Himself and His abilities. In one “poof” He scatters everybody to different corners of the world, to live happily ever after – or not – on their own. But Noah’s generation is a different thing. The most “righteous” person who “walks with G-d” and “finds favor in Hashem’s eyes” can barely save himself and his family, and has no power – or interest – to save anyone else, ending up in a dull destruction of everyone, even the animals and plants who were left outside the ark.

Perhaps the Torah tells us that a world where people have “issues” with G-d, is manageable, but a world where people carelessly harm each other, is not worth keeping.

*******

The word for ark in this story, teiva, appears in the whole Bible only in two contexts; here and in the story of “baby Moses”. In both cases, a teiva is a life saving vessel, floating on the water (not a boat or basket-) and its purpose is survival rather than arrival somewhere. Interestingly, in Hebrew, the word teiva can also be used for “word” or syllable (as in rashei teivot). This would mean that G-d invites Noah to come into the “word”.

Which word is G-d inviting Noah into?

G-d’s name is yod, heh, vav, heh. Yod = 10; Heh = 5; Vav = 6; Heh = 5.

5X10=50

5X6=30

5X6X10 =300

What are these numbers? A fun coincidence: these are the measurements of the ark:

וְזֶ֕ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר תַּֽעֲשֶׂ֖ה אֹתָ֑הּ שְׁלֹ֧שׁ מֵא֣וֹת אַמָּ֗ה אֹ֚רֶךְ הַתֵּבָ֔ה חֲמִשִּׁ֤ים אַמָּה֙ רָחְבָּ֔הּ וּשְׁלֹשִׁ֥ים אַמָּ֖ה קוֹמָתָֽהּ׃

This is how you shall make it: the length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits.

*******

On Rosh Hashana we say that G-d remembers Noah with love. G-d has a lot of issues with Noah. Noah is far from perfect. He “finds favor”, which means, some of his bad qualities were overlooked. But he was saved. Indeed, remembering someone is – love.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Starting all over – the Torah portion of Beresheet

The first Rashi on the Torah is so bizarre, it’s worth bringing it in its own words (with Sefaria’s help):

בראשית IN THE BEGINNING — Rabbi Isaac said: The Torah which is the Law book of Israel should have commenced with the verse (Exodus 12:2) “This month shall be unto you the first of the months” which is the first commandment given to Israel. What is the reason, then, that it commences with the account of the Creation? Because of the thought expressed in the text (Psalms 111:6) “He declared to His people the strength of His works (i.e. He gave an account of the work of Creation), in order that He might give them the heritage of the nations.” For should the peoples of the world say to Israel, “You are robbers, because you took by force the lands of the seven nations of Canaan”, Israel may reply to them, “All the earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it and gave it to whom He pleased. When He willed He gave it to them, and when He willed He took it from them and gave it to us” (Yalkut Shimoni on Torah 187).

Rashi’s question is, if the Torah is a book of laws, it should have started in Exodus 12:2; where the first mitzvah given to the People is mentioned. For what use to us are all the stories before that? His answer is, so that one day, when anyone might show up and wonder why we “took” the Land of Israel, we’ll be able to say something like, you know G-d who created the whole world? He is the One who gave it to us’.

Of course, the answer suffers from an internal logic paradox: why would someone who doesn’t believe in G-d or the Torah ask us this question and accept such an answer, but to me, that’s the least of it. What’s mind-boggling, is that Rashi, who lives in 11th century France, caring for his vineyard and busy writing extensive commentary (without electricity and word-processors…), 1000 years after the Second Temple was destroyed, and just prior to the Crusaders who are about the sweep through Europe in deadly marches, looks at the whole “diaspora-experience” is just a little accident on our history but the real thing, the whole reason for the Torah, and why it begins where it does, is for our connection with the Land of Israel.

*******

A fantastic conversation took place between the House of Shamai and the House of Hillel. Here it is (from Tractate Eruvin 13:b, with Sefaria’s help):

תנו רבנן שתי שנים ומחצה נחלקו בית שמאי ובית הלל. הללו אומרים נוח לו לאדם שלא נברא יותר משנברא, והללו אומרים נוח לו לאדם שנברא יותר משלא נברא. נמנו וגמרו נוח לו לאדם שלא נברא יותר משנברא….

The Sages taught the following baraita: For two and a half years, Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed. These say: It would have been preferable had man not been created than to have been created. And those said: It is preferable for man to have been created than had he not been created. Ultimately, they were counted and concluded: It would have been preferable had man not been created than to have been created.

What does that mean? And how come Beit Shamai is “wining” this argument? In the Psalms   (133:1), we find the famous song: hine ma tov uma na’im… הנה מה טוב ומה נעים behold, how good and pleasant… because we know things that are good but not pleasant, or pleasant but not good… Likewise, we just finished wishing each other, Shana Tova U’metuka, both a good and sweet year, because sometimes those two don’t come together. Why were humans created? We don’t know! Indeed, as the Mei Shiloach explains, it might have been “more comfortable”, more no’ach, easier or “preferable” in the above translation, if the human being was not created, but possibly not “more good”. That piece is left for us.

Shabbat Shalom.

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