Three Prophets, Three Crises, Three Cries

Sometimes I look at a Torah commentary, whether ancient or contemporary or somewhere in between and my main thought is: “Whoa! That’s a lot of weight to put on one word.”

…I think of Humpty Dumpty telling Alice — while she is Through the Looking-Glass — that he always pays words extra when he makes them do a lot of work, like when he uses the word “impenetrability” to mean a full paragraph beginning, “we’ve had enough of that subject…”

As it is, though, words in the Torah regularly work pretty hard, anyway. Numbers Rabbah tells us, after all, that there are 70 modes of expounding every word. And it’s not uncommon for extended commentaries to hinge largely on one word.

Still I find myself hoping that the word “devarim” and colleagues have negotiated extra pay for all the overtime expected in the weeks ahead and that eichah has lots of seasonal bonus pay coming.

I was originally planning to discuss the word davar, which plays such an important role in the Book of Deuteronomy beginning with this week’s portion. (Some early notes on Davar and Devarim here in PDF.)

But I decided to give davar and put the word eichah/how to work instead. Here’s more on the word itself, and here’s a midrash linking three eichah verses: an ancient version, from Eichah Rabbah; one from the 15th Century, Akeidat Yitzchak; and my attempt at less gendered imagery.

Three Eichah Verses

The first verse is from today’s Torah reading. It appears in a passage (Deut. 1:9ff) in which Moses describes feeling beleaguered, stuck in an untenable situation. In the midst of this story, he recalls telling the People: “Eichah/How can I myself alone bear your cumbrance, and your burden, and your strife?” Using the clunky 1917 JPS here purposely, to highlight the weirdness of the word טֹרַח [torach, cumbrance] which appears only in this verse and in the first chapter of Isaiah. (More on torach here.)

His recollection appears to conflate two previous incidents:

The first is in Exodus 18, when Yitro asks his son-in-law: “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?” Yitro then suggests, and Moses implements, a system of 70 judges to share judicial burden.

The second is in Numbers 11, when the People complain about lacking meat and Moses tells God: “I am not able to bear all this people myself alone, because it is too heavy for me.” God commands a system of 70 elders to receive some of the spirit previously upon Moses, saying: “they shall bear the burden of the people with you, that you bear it not yourself alone.”

Here, in Deuteronomy, Moses doesn’t mention either Yitro’s suggestion or God’s command, instead describing a system of captains and officers that appears to be his own invention.

This shift in the cast of characters has many implications, but today I want to hone in on the trouble in the community represented by that one word Moses uses in describing his frustration.

To the ancient Rabbis, the desperate-sounding “eichah” that Moses employs in the desert resonated with later experiences in Isaiah’s time and in Jeremiah’s. The Rabbis arranged three readings, over less than a week in the Jewish calendar, using that same cry.

As the midrash suggests the three eichahs indicate escalating disaster:

  • from the People — and Moses, in his own way — behaving badly enough in the desert that a breaking point threatens,
  • to the People in Jerusalem behaving so badly that God is ready to snap; and finally,
  • to complete loss of the central community institution, with destruction of the Temple and exile of the People, and the related loss of social order.

Although the midrash does not add this, we know that what looks like total destruction is not the end. Destruction of the First Temple resulted in a Judaism built on the experience of Exile, and then, after destruction of the Second Temple, the Rabbinic Judaism that we practice today. The eichah in our three texts suggests a “how” of transformation to be learned from each stage — as well as messages for each stage to be found in reading them together.

Escalating Disaster

In Deut 1:12, Moses moves pretty quickly from perception of a problem to solution. But the eichah points to an element of the situation we might otherwise miss: mutual despair, with Moses and the People together in turmoil. Things sound pretty dire, at one point, but there is a turn-around. How? The People and Moses must refocus on basic principles: justice and organizing for sharing of burdens.

Similarly, in the Haftarah, the eichah hints at despair as the community and its systems are in peril. This time God seems to have reached a breaking point, declaring through Isaiah that the People are a rotten mess, harboring thieves and murderers, while rituals have become so empty that God is hurt to the very quick. The remedy, the People are told again, is a refocusing on basic principles: How to avoid disaster? Learn to do good; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, atone for wrongs, clean up the mess.

The eichah of Lamentations however, is a breaking point without apparent remedy. The closest thing to repair we hear is that final plea: “Bring us back to You, HASHEM, and we shall return as in days of old.” How will this occur? On Tisha B’av, we don’t know yet. The author of Lamentations, and its original listeners, had not yet moved on from disaster and mourning to the period of betweenness and then transformation.

By asking us to read all three eichahs in short order — all on one weekend, as it happens, this year [5779] — we prepare for Tisha B’av’s “don’t know yet” with Shabbat Hazon’s “hows” of previous transformations. But it also, I think, warns us to be willing to sit with that “don’t know yet” in the other stages of disaster, outlined in the three-part midrash.

We have the instructional “how” of Deuteronomy and Isaiah in today’s readings, reminders of what we’re supposed to be doing in terms of individual and communal repair. But we can also make use of the desperate element in the “how” — taking time to process the grief and the worry, communities at the breaking point, rituals that don’t seem to serve their purpose any longer. Eichah?!

Transformations and the Grateful Dead

A few years ago, an essay in the Times of Israel suggested that we can also learn about the transformations of Judaism marked with Tisha B’av from the transformation of the Grateful Dead, following Jerry Garcia’s death. (What the Grateful Dead Can Teach Us About Tisha B’av at Times of Israel, 2017)

Then newly minted rabbi, Simeon Cohen, mentions “the Days Between,” from Jerry Garcia’s birthday, August 1, to his yahrzeit, August 9, in his essay and links this period to the Jewish calendar’s Nine Days of mourning at the start of Av.

“The Days Between” by the way, is celebrated around the world and has no intrinsic relationship to Tisha B’av or Judaism generally. “The Nine Days of Jerry” was launched in an orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem and specifically organized around the season of Av. Cohen’s essay doesn’t mention these details, so here is some background for those interested; meanwhile moving ahead to his punchline…

After the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans, Yohanan ben Zakkai founded a new learning institution at Yavneh, and, eventually, Cohen writes, “an entirely new, revolutionary form of Judaism was born. It has now far outlasted its predecessor.” He likens this to the survival of Dead-related music after Jerry Garcia died in 1995. (As much as I appreciate the existence and publication of this essay, I find that it focuses more on the commercial success of Dead-related enterprises in the post-1995 years — along with the popularity of that worst of all Dead songs, “Touch of Gray” — rather than on survival of any kind of Deadly essence.)

Then, noting current issues, including tension between Israel and the Diaspora, Cohen concludes:

World Jewry is in the midst of an incredibly fraught moment…Yet I take comfort in the adaptive, evolutionary spirit of Yohanan ben Zakkai and the Grateful Dead. No matter how dark things become, we have always found a way to survive.

This is a comforting message. But I fear that it too quickly jumps toward that big change, skipping over crucial mourning and betweenness. The desire to do this is not unique to Cohen: it’s very common, and quite comforting in some ways, to jump toward solutions in order to avoid having to sit with mourning and betweenness. In doing so, however, we miss crucial lessons.

Another article on the Grateful Dead focuses more on the betweenness. And I don’t think it requires ever having heard two bars of Dead music to consider, as the author says: Grateful Dead music “has always been about listening to the transforming collective experience of the moment.” (See “Tuning In Together” by Granville Ganter)

Isn’t this also an aspect of what we do in group prayer? Through music, speech, and/or silence prayer helps us shape individual gratitude into collective praise, grief into commitment, and disasters into a future we cannot yet imagine. But, like listening to the Grateful Dead, prayer requires experiencing the moment — which sometimes means sitting with pain, anxiety, or uncertainty — and noticing the transformations happening inside it.

Combining Messages

Together the three eichah texts — along with Rabbi Cohen’s Grateful Dead analogy — remind us that nothing stays the same for long, that growth comes with new burdens, that living in community and pursuing a vision is hard work. We have to adapt, learn to do good in changing circumstances, seek justice over and over again.

The calendar is built to remind us:
the three weeks of chastising prophetic readings come every year; followed by the lowest day of the year, Tisha B’av; and then the slow climb up through the seven weeks of comfort, including Elul’s wake-up calls, toward the new year.

Today’s reading from Isaiah, built into that cycle, warns us now that it won’t be enough in the coming holiday season to check off the days — skip a few meals, listen to the shofar, give tzedakah donations, recite the proper words — none of that, by itself, will create change, for us or for the wider world.

Today’s Torah reading, also a part of this cycle, cautions us to take a look at our communities now — before we head into the season of repair and return — to notice if the burdens and spirit and power are balanced in healthful ways, or if we are facing more disaster ahead.

Shabbat Hazon asks us to envision something different for the coming year.

Tisha B’av asks us to sit with mourning and betweenness.

And the combination of the two suggests the possibility of true transformation.


NOTES

More on “eichah

The Hebrew word אֵיךְ [eich, how] — an adverb/interrogative with an incredulous, negative connotation (the Evan Shoshan concordance calls it “question of rebuke”), appears six times in Genesis and Exodus. For example: when Abimelech says to Isaac: “…she’s your wife! so how then did you say ‘she is my sister’!” (Gen 26:9), and when Moses says to God: “…the children of Israel haven’t listened to me, so how will Pharaoh hear me, of uncircumcised lips?” (Exod 6:12).

The word does not appear at all in Leviticus or Numbers. This form (including v’eich, וְאֵיךְ) appears 55 times in the Prophets and Writings.

The form eichah אֵיכָה first appears in Deuteronomy, where it is used five times, beginning with 1:12. This is more than in any other book, even the Book of Lamentations (Eichah), where it appears four times. The use in Isaiah, included in the midrash above, is the only appearance in that book. This form of the word shows up an additional seven times in the Tanakh: in Judges, 2 Kings, Song of Songs (twice in one verse), and Psalms, along with twice in Jeremiah.

In total, the Evan Shoshan Concordance only lists 78 occurrences of eich/eichah, plus four instances of “אֵיכָ֖כָה eichachah,” which appears twice in the Book of Esther and twice in Song of Songs. (Strong’s lists 82 occurrences, including all three forms — it’s nice when they match!)

“How?!” is not among the rarest words in the Tanakh, but it’s unusual (and IMO interesting.)

Regarding the less usual “אֵיכָ֖כָה eichachah” form, see also “The World is Like a Poem” by Annabelle Farmelant.”

Three-Part Eichah Midrash in Three Versions

from Eichah Rabbah:
Three prophesied with the language of eichah: Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah.* Moses said, (Deut 1:12), “How (eichah) will I carry alone…” Isaiah said, (Isa 1:21) “How (eichah) she has become a prostitute…” Jeremiah said, (Lam 1:1) “How (eichah) does she dwell…” Said

Rabbi Levi: It is compared to a noble woman who had three friends. One saw her at peace, one saw her in her recklessness, and one saw her in her degradation

  1. So did Moses see Yisrael in their honor, and in their tranquility, [yet] he said, “How will I carry their burden alone?”
  2. Isaiah saw them in their recklessness, and he said “How she has become a prostitute…”
  3. Jeremiah saw them in their degradation, and he said, “How does she dwell…”

Eichah Rabbah 1(Roman Palestine) via sefaria

*NOTE: The assumption here is that Jeremiah wrote Lamentations. There are additional uses of “eichah” in the Tanakh, but they are not “prophecies.”
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Akeidat Yitzchak (15th Century CE Spain) offers the same parable with the noble woman first “at the height of her beauty and wealth,” then “committing excesses,” and finally “in disgrace.” — this is based on the older midrash: Eichah Rabbah 1 (Roman Palestine).
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One more version:
It’s hard to de-gender the biblical images, but perhaps we can rethink the midrash as three stages at which the prophets meet Yisrael:

  1. Moses knew them during a carefree period (God and the People are “honeymooning” in the desert) but was still prompted to cry “How…”;
  2. Isaiah knew them when they were treating greater riches carelessly and warned them about power imbalances;
  3. Jeremiah knew them at a time of complete disaster and cried out at their misery, not recognizing their carefree, even careless, past.


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Torach

In addition to sharing the word “eichah” with the only verse in Isaiah to use “eichah,” as discussed above, Deuteronomy 1:12 shares the word “torach” with the only verse in Isaiah (or anywhere else in the Tanakh) to use that word. (“Torach” only appears in these two verses in Tanakh.)

חָדְשֵׁיכֶם וּמוֹעֲדֵיכֶם שָׂנְאָה נַפְשִׁי
הָיוּ עָלַי לָטֹרַח; נִלְאֵיתִי, נְשֹׂא
Your new moons and your appointed seasons fill Me with loathing;* They are become a burden to Me, I cannot endure them.
— Isaiah 1:14

אֵיכָה אֶשָּׂא, לְבַדִּי,
טָרְחֲכֶם וּמַשַּׂאֲכֶם, וְרִיבְכֶם
How can I bear unaided
the trouble of you, and the burden,
and the bickering!
— Deuteronomy 1:12

*This is the “New JPS” (Jewish Publication Society), 1985. The 1917 “Old JPS” has “My soul hateth,” following KJV (King James Version), for “loathing” here; Alter has “utterly despises,” noting that he incorporated into the verb phrase the intensity of the subject’s added נַפְשִׁי nafshi [my soul].

טָרְחֲכֶם, tarchakhem — the trouble of you. טֹרַח, torach is usually translated in Isaiah 1:14 as “burden,” while the same Hebrew word, as it appears in Deuteronomy here, is translated as “trouble” or “(heavy) load,” or, in the old JPS and the KJV: “cumbrance.”

In the earlier version of Moses’ complaint about the people being too heavy to bear (Numbers 11:11), the Hebrew is מַשָּׂא, massa, regularly translated in that verse — as well as here (following “trouble of you” above) — as “burden.” Massa is a far more common word than torach.


The Nine Days (of Av), The Nine Days of Jerry, and the Days Between

Since 2008 at least, music promoters have been marking what was originally called “Jerry week” (although nine days), between the August 1 birthday and August 9 death date of Jerry Garcia (1942-1995). More recently, fans have been marking what are now called “the Days Between.” Locally, for example, the Hamilton Live venue has been celebrating for three years now. While plenty of Jews celebrate, “the Days Between” don’t have the same Jewish resonance of the “Nine Days of Jerry.”

In 2010, Lorelai Kude, a huge Dead fan with a sense of personal connection to the band and to Jerry, in particular, launched the “Nine Days of Jerry” on her audio streaming program called “Radio Free Nachlaot” (RFN). She had started RFN, named for her Jerusalem neighborhood and using the tagline “Where Shlomo meets Jerry,” the year before.

I met Lorelai at a Jewish Deadhead camp of sorts, “Blues for Challah,” at Camp Isabella Freedman in 2011. It seemed clear that the Nine Days of Jerry were, for her, more than simply a chance to reflect and remember — as Rabbi Cohen describes “the Days Between” in his essay, and as many fans experience the period — but much more of a marking of Jerry’s yahrzeit and an attempt to deal with major loss, both relating to the Jewish calendar and to Jerry’s death and the subsequent changes in the Dead universe.

Many fans, Jewish and not, mark “the Days Between,” wherever they fall in the Jewish calendar. Lorelai and many of her listeners, however, avoid music in observance of the Nine Days (of Av). Depending on how August and Av line up, RFN is frequently shut down entirely, in mourning, while others are celebrating. This year, the Nine Days of Jerry begin August 12.
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World Like a Poem

Annabelle Farmelant, a U.S.-based writer, who published books of Hebrew verse in 1960 and 1961, focused a number of her poems on what words — especially in Hebrew’s gendered language — can and cannot do:

The world is like a poem
in all its glory,
even in the thick of its aches
terrors and cries
its grandeur is reflected.
Man enters the world like a wanderer
Like a wanderer man enters the world
and declares that he will roam
always, always.*
But how — he asks — just how**
— Eichacha — yisheil — eichacha —
does beauty rule a poem
when a line is erased?
How does splendor** shine
when its form is wiped out?
Man is not in these things
for a poem’s beauty is not in a line
an unnamed wanderer
in the world’s splendor***
Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores

*lanetzach. Forever or eternally, rather than perpetually.
**Eichacha — yisheil — eichacha. How — he asks — just how.
***tiferet ba-olam. splendor in the world. Tifereth is a feminine word for an attribute of the divine, one right at the center of the Kabbalist tree of life. tiferet ha-olam. splendor of the world

The translation is by Adriana X. Jacobs, from Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores: Poems by Anne Kleiman and Annabelle Farmelant. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2016). The notes are mine, and I’m including a few of the original Hebrew words. Additional information on Farmelant, including an article on her work by Jacobs. [UPDATE 8/30/19: Farmelant died in New York City on June 14, 2019 and was buried in Boston.]

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Eicha for my city and maybe for yours

Alas! How lonely sits the city
Once great with joyful people!
New horrors fill horizons now
while old pain never left
Each new loss diminishes
the streets themselves bereft

Bitterly we weep all night
cheeks wet with tears unseen
If we are to join together,
we must widen this choir of woe
When some cries are background noise
what’s the meaning of “friend” and “foe”?

City in despair right here,
Can Jewish space bring rest?
Refugees are some, just some,
of misery’s many faces
Public protest spreads the nation
are we stuck in narrow places?

Down our roads, more peril
desolation, violence, fear
systems that crush and jail
separate, cage, and hate
Borders come in many shapes
Too often closed, that welcome gate

Evidence mounts. Not in our name.
Closing camps, protecting neighbors and strangers –
that is work we are all called to do
But what about mutual care?
Or must we ignore some of our truths
in chasing a goal that we share?

Forging coalition is struggle, tougher in anguish.
Inside affliction, can we hear another cry?
It is painful and complex, but we must keep trying
trying to heed the whole sound
I know you can hear it, God once declared loudly:
that voice of a sibling crying up from the ground

–V. Spatz, songeveryday.org CC-BY-SA

Yes: We demonstrate publicly that Jews will not turn our backs on refugees arriving in this country and on immigrant neighbors already here. We support vigils and protest to #CloseTheCamps. Now!!
Can we not also:

  • Recognize many ways our country has long separated families, caged and brutalized people?
  • Cry with our local, national and international communities, refugees and not, who lend different voices to the chorus of “How lonely sits this place!”?
  • Send prayer energy to our many beleaguered communities, near and far?
  • Commit to exploring, in the days to come, ways in which we are complicit in so much suffering and ways we might take up action for repair?

“It is not ours to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from it” — Pirkei Avot 2:16

Here’s a PDF of this post, should anyone want to print a single page.Eichah for my city maybe yours

How Does the Faithful City Harbor Murderers?!

Eichah?! How is it that our city is now the home of murderers? That’s one question (Isaiah 1:21) we are asked in the prophetic reading (Isaiah 1:1-27) for the Shabbat before Tisha B’av, the day of mega-mourning in the Jewish calendar. It’s one that many in the District of Columbia, and other cities in the U.S., are asking ourselves this year, as in years past.

In DC, we recently lost an 11-year-old child, Karon Brown, who spent his summer days selling water and Gatorade on the street; Jamal Bandy, a 27-year-old assistant coach at the rec center where Karon played; and a 17-year-old student and poet, Ahkii Washington-Scruggs, who wrote shortly before his death:

In D.C., it’s nothing but people trying to take your life away
I’m from a city where it’s a blessing to see the age 20

These are just three of the 96 lost to violence since January inside our city limits. This doesn’t count the many more injured in gun violence, the communities traumatized, the educations disrupted, and the constant grief and fear in which some parts of the city live…while other neighborhoods are free to enjoy the city, tuning in or out, at will, to the dreadful conditions a short distance away.

In Isaiah’s frightful prophecy, we are told that two true things are:

1) we are a rotten mess, harboring thieves and murderers while hiding behind empty rituals, and

2) we can stop adding more blood to our hands and turn things around:

And when you spread forth your hands, I will hide My eyes from you;
Though you pray at length, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood.
Wash you, make you clean, put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes, cease to do evil;
Learn to do well;
seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.
— Isa 1:14-17 (JPS 1917 translation adapted)

Multiple Mournings

The state of my city is what I hear when first Moses, in the Torah reading for Shabbat Hazon (right before Tisha B’av; Deuteronomy 1:12), and then Isaiah (above), and finally Lamentations (read on Tisha B’av, which begins with nightfall on August 10), cry Eichah?!

So it is hard for me to enter into prayers on Tisha B’av, as Truah is calling us to do, to mourn in solidarity with immigrants and demand closing the camps, without also acknowledging the many other ways families have been torn apart, caged, and otherwise brutalized since the last Tisha B’av.

I strongly support Jews standing against the camps and witnessing that Never Again is Now. When non-Jews called for Lights for Liberty protests a few weeks ago, I advocated for bringing a strong Jewish presence to those events. But I don’t understand how it is — again, however unintentionally, that Eichah?! — that we can mourn for the one set of griefs, and atone for the one way in which our hands are bloody, without acknowledging the other… and the many other ways in which our country has been complicit in murder, here and abroad.

Last year, I joined the Truah Tisha B’av observance at Lafayette Park ONLY because I saw that DC’s listing included this statement: “…not just on the southern border, but every time a parent is put in prison for months on end, is brutally murdered by police—we lament” (excerpts from the 2018 announcement below). In actual practice, however, it turned out that the focus was entirely on refugees except for some words around the mourners’ kaddish about local gun violence deaths.

Eichah?!: How is it that this second year of solidarity with refugees for Tisha B’av, there is still not one resource that Truah provides — as far as I can see; if I missed something someone please let me know — that allows Jews to mourn separations and cages and death in more ways than one?

Whether you or your community join a Truah event or pray and mourn in another way on Tisha B’av, please consider acknowledging the many ways our country has ripped families apart, caged, and otherwise brutalized refugees AND OTHERS. There is still time. I know we can do better.

Some resources that might be adapted to the purpose — or we can write new ones!





Eichah! How My city
אֵיכָה הָיְתָה לְזוֹנָה קִרְיָה נֶאֱמָנָה
מְלֵאֲתִי מִשְׁפָּט צֶ֛דֶק יָלִין בָּהּ וְעַתָּה מְרַצְּחִים׃
How is the faithful city become a harlot! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers. — Isaiah 1:21

לִמְדוּ הֵיטֵב דִּרְשׁוּ מִשְׁפָּט, אַשְּׁרוּ חָמוֹץ; שִׁפְטוּ יָתוֹם, רִיבוּ אַלְמָנָה
Learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. — Isa 1:17
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Excerpts from DC’s 2018 Truah co-sponsored Tisha B’av

Our grief is compounded by holding many overwhelming tragedies together in one day.

It is written that baseless hatred and paralyzing humility were the reasons the Holy Temple was destroyed. We read from the Book of Lamentations and bare witness, through our lament, to the horror of children separated from parents—not just on the southern border, but every time a parent is put in prison for months on end, is brutally murdered by police—we lament. In the face of the fear and uncertainty plaguing our immigrant communities, plaguing Black mothers who fear for their children’s safety, of Muslim children, witnessing daily state violence, of indigenous families, ripped from their land, we lament.
— full 2018 announcement; scroll down for Washington DC

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PS — Some Starting Points

Just a few resources that could be adapted

Materials with some beautiful and pertinent adaptable bits:

From this blog:

Is Our Blood Redder? Synagogue Security and Police Alliance

Thoughts, fears, and tears following a recent class on “How Can We Manage the Need for Security in Our Sacred Spaces?

The June 5 panel included presentations from several local congregations on issues faced in deciding on security measures, as well as comments from a community security advisor. Brief notes on their initial presentations appear below. The main points included ensuring that Jewish values are considered in decision-making (Garfinkel, Fabrangen), attempting to protect diversity of all kinds within a congregation (Zeilinger, Tifereth Israel), and “acknowledging that other people in the country who want to do you harm” (Apostolou, Ohev Sholom). Some of the discussion included attempts to make congregations welcoming spaces across difference, but each presentation included the importance of creating a close alliance with police.

I had the opportunity to query what it means to ask Jews to enter into an alliance with police, when we know police do not necessarily ensure the safety of Black people, queer people and others or enhance feelings of safety for many. Responses to this query are below within each panelists remarks. While two of the three congregational responses included some level of concern about alliance with police, one panelist actively dismissed the concern, repeating, “Who else are you going to call?”

For anyone concerned about privacy: The class was video-taped, and a Washington Jewish Week reporter was present throughout.


The Unasked Question

Throughout the class, and especially throughout responses to my query about alliance with police, I could not shake the question: “Is your blood redder?” But no one on the panel or in the class asked it aloud, and no one but me raised objections or even questioned an alliance with police…. Instead, most people laughed when heavily armed MPD officers entered the room and someone said, “well, now this is the safest class in the city.”

I began to wonder if perhaps I had remember the Talmud passage incorrectly or had its basic meaning wrong. Here, for anyone who isn’t familiar or just wants to refresh, is the basic quotation:

…[An individual] came before Raba and said to him: “The governor of my town has ordered me, ‘Go and kill So-and-so, if not, I will kill you.’” Raba answered him: ‘Let him kill you rather than that you should commit murder; what [reason] do you see [for thinking] that your blood is redder? Perhaps his blood is redder.’ — Talmud (Pesachim 23b, Sanhedrin 74a)

And here is one teaching that puts it in more context:

[Previous discussion points out that a Jew must accept martyrdom rather than engage in three behaviors: idol worship, forbidden sexual practices, and murder. (This is the text Jerry Garfinkel referenced in his remarks about Jewish values.)]

Two out of the three of these demands for martyrdom — the demand that one forfeit one’s life rather than worship idols or engage in forbidden sexual practices — are contested. In each, a biblical grounding is sought and presented. However, the demand that one allow oneself to be killed rather than murder another is based purely on s’vara, in argument rather than biblical precept:

And from where do we know [the prohibition concerning] the murderer himself? It is common sense. It is as the one who came before Rabbah and said to him, “The governor of my town has ordered me, ‘God and kill so and so; if not, I will kill you.” He said to him, “He should kill you and you should not kill; who would say that your blood is redder? Perhaps his blood is redder.”

Turning the question around (“who is to say that your blood is redder,” rather than “who is to say his blood is redder”) essentially answers the question for Rabbah. If you are to actively take someone else’s life, then you have to be able to articulate an argument that shows that your life is more important than that of the other person. In order for you to claim the right to tip the balance in your favor, when you are on one side and another person is on the other, you have to have a substantial–or even overriding–reason. The instinct of self-preservation is not enough.

— Aryeh Cohen, “And Give You Peace” IN David Birnbaum & Martin S. Cohen Birkat Kohanim: The Priestly Blessing. NY: New Paradigm Matrix, 2016.

And here is another perspective, one that assumes we will likely never have to make such a life-and-death decision:

God willing, none of us will ever have to face so horrible a situation. Still, the Talmud’s insistence that other people’s blood is as important as our own should affect our daily behavior, even in non-life threatening situations. For example, those who push ahead of others in lines are likewise guilty of thinking that their blood is redder than others and that they need not wait their turn. Therefore, before you push your own interests at the expense of others, and assert that your time is more valuable, as yourself the question Rava posed to this man, “Do think that your blood is redder than his?”

— Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, The Jewish Book of Values. NY: Crown Publishing Group, 2000, p.429.

I do appreciate that each congregation represented is endeavoring to, as Chris Zeilinger said, “doing the best we can.” I understand the struggles, fears, and hard realities that congregational security must face. I am deeply troubled, however, that the question of whose blood is redder does not seem to be taken as relevant.

Is this because the people involved do not believe that police are a threat to any within their congregations? to others in the city?

Is this because the people involved have simply resigned themselves to “who else are you going to call?” and refuse to consider other alternatives?

Can we, please, at least ask the question?

More Reading

For consideration, a few op-eds on related issues:

“Opinion: It’s Time For Jewish Communities To Stop Investing In The Police” from Lara Haft, 3/23/18.

“Op-Ed: On Hanukkah, Let’s Challenge Militarized Security Responses to Anti-Semitism” by Brant Rosen, 12/2/18.

After Pittsburgh, Jewish Communities Need Community Defense, not Cops” by Lara Haft, 11/3/18

Jews for Racial and Economic Justice “Community Safety Pledge


How Can We Manage the Need for Security in Our Sacred Spaces?

Jewish Study Center course announcement: Wednesday, June 5: Voices From the Community. Community security leaders discuss their practical experience balancing sacredness and security, especially in the wake of the Pittsburgh shooting and rising concerns about anti-Semitism. Panel members: Andrew Apostolou is a historian of the Holocaust who is Security Coordinator at Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue. Gerald (Jerry) Garfinkel is a retired mathematician who is Treasurer of the Jewish Study Center and Security Coordinator at the Fabrangen Havurah. Vera Krimnus is the DC Area Regional Manager of the Community Security Service (CSS) that provides security services to the Jewish Community, including training, physical security and raising public awareness about security issues. Chris Zeilinger is a US government transportation executive, a former president of Tifereth Israel Congregation and its Security Coordinator. If you have grappled with this issue in your own community, or felt its effects, come join the conversation!



Chris Zeilinger, from Tifereth Israel, shared in his initial presentation his own thoughts, and some from congregants, including how some members feel safer around a visible security presence and others find it “unwelcoming and scary.” He spoke about the congregation’s efforts to ensure welcome for Jews of color and Jews with different identities and expressions of Judaism. Zeilinger also addressed mental illness issues, both in families within the congregation and in individuals who might be seeking to visit or find succor in the congregation.

In response to my query about alliance with police, Zeilinger added that alleged perpetrators in synagogue shootings have “looked like me,” reiterating that they endeavor to make all Jews and visitors welcome, not to screen people out, and, ultimately “do the best we can.”

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Andrew Apostolou, of Ohev Sholom, says he does not consider the U.S. “his country,” and spoke about living in London. His original presentation warned that “security in the US is always considered secondary to something else,” including class expectations (people with “fancy degrees” shouldn’t have their Shabbat ruined by security worries) and younger generations having less focus on communal endeavors. He believes Jews, and the country at large, do not want to acknowledge potential threats.

Apostolou insisted: “If I don’t stand out front of my synagogue ready to call police, I don’t care about the community,” adding that “the ultimate line of defense is deadly force.”

In response to my query about police alliance, Apostolou argued that skin color and appearance are “irrelevant” in security and argued that issues around policing in the US are “domestic political issues” and not practical problems for someone providing synagogue security. He dismissed community solidarity safety efforts as “fodder” for automatic weapons, and repeated several times: “Who else are you going to call?”

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Gerald (Jerry) Garfinkel, of Fabrangen Havurah, spoke in his initial remarks about life being paramount in Jewish values, citing the tradition that only three commandments are subordinate to preserving one’s own life: sexual immorality, idolatry, and murdering someone else (B. Sanhedrin 74a). He talked about working jointly with Muslims and other groups using the same building with Fabrangen in ensuring safety and said the goal was to “protect ourselves and others in the community.”

Garfinkel mentioned that Secure Communities Network , which oversees security for Jewish Federations, warned at a recent conference that arming citizens does not solve problems but causes more. He also stressed that the goal of security, as he understands it, is to prevent someone who means harm from entering the space.

In response to my police alliance query, Garfinkel stressed that all police involved in security for Fabrangen are minorities.

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Vera Krimnus, local representative of the Community Security Service, discussed how her organization works with congregations to arrange security. She argued that security is part of a welcoming environment, saying: “If I’m sitting there, worrying about the safety of my kids, is that really welcoming for me?”

Rabbi Aaron Alexander, of Adas Israel, taught the first session of the two-part class (which I was unable to attend). Jerry Garfinkel very briefly summarized the class as follows: The community is responsible for security, and should provide it, taxing to do so if need be; however, this “must be done right,” without impeding people who need to use the space.

R. Alexander’s sources for the first session include texts focusing on why we build walls, who is responsible for them, and what to do when a wall blocks out poor people crying for help; whether weapons can be carried into sacred space, under what conditions; and responsibility for activity that may be dangerous to others.

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Some Say 400 Cubits: Slow Dancing with Talmud

I first learned the story of “The Oven of Akhnai” (B. Baba Metzia 59a-59b) in the context of Imma Shalom, wife of Rabbi Eliezer, and her teaching about “the gate of wounded feelings.” I learned more about Rabbi Eliezer’s life, post-Akhnai, from a class on one of the Nine Talmudic Readings of Emmanuel Levinas. In addition, I’ve seen and heard the text referenced in many a commentary emphasizing that “Torah is not in heaven.” (See notes below on Akhnai, Imma Shalom, and Levinas.) For the first time, however, I am now reading the story in a small community of learners grappling directly with the text as it appears in the Babylonian Talmud…

…word by word,
sometimes syllable by syllable,
through Aramaic and Hebrew,
without relying on previous translation,
until we’ve discerned, at least tentatively,
each word’s root and tense,
gender, number, and possible meanings.
We learn how the words work with one another,
how “technical” expressions like “it is taught,” add clues,
how we, together with our study partners,
and then as a group with our teacher,
can work together to explore
what the text might be saying
and what that says about Jewish thought….

For this “Contemplative Bet Midrash,” taught by SVARA Fellow Rabbi Lauren Tuchman, we are asked to set aside any previous meetings and encounter the text as though for the first time. (For more on SVARA: The Traditionally Radical Yeshiva, visit their website.)

We are encouraged to look up every word, even ones we (think we) know, in order to consider a variety of possible definitions.

SVARA-Inspired Slow Dance

The opening line of our text, for example, tells us “they cut it into pieces,” without explaining who cut what or why. So, we test out “circle” and “dance” and “everyday” before settling on “sand” as the best definition for “חול (chol),” the substance between these unexplained pieces.

We learn that these pieces and sand are “the oven of Akhnai,” and then ask, right along with the voice of the Gemara: “What is this, Akhnai?”

We experience as passing strange the introduction of a carob tree as a point of proof in this argument. Our studies paused this past week right after “they” tell Rabbi Eliezer, “we don’t take evidence from carob trees.” And from this cliff-hanging perspective, I notice things I previously missed.

I’ve never noticed before how this story begins with an image of brokenness — “they cut it into pieces” — and then introduces Rabbi Eliezer already in opposition to the Hakhamim (“Wise Ones,” that is, scholars holding the majority opinion in this case). Previous passes through this material made clear there was a dispute of some magnitude, but I never noticed the extremes of response here, even before we reach the carob tree and what follows:

  • Rabbi Eliezer does not just argue but brings “all the responses (or refutations or arguments) in the world [כל תשובות שבעולם (khol teshuvot sh’ba-olam)],” while
  • the Hakhamim refuse to accept (any) arguments from him, [ולא קיבלו הימנו (v’lo kivalu heimenu)],” rather than simply disagreeing.

“They refused to accept (anything) from him.”

When our learning for one week paused at this point, that phrase just seemed so stark. (Despite attempts to meet the text anew, I’m sure my reaction is influenced to some extent by previous encounters. Still.)

BabaMetzia1

You are There

Along with feeling the starkness of Rabbi Eliezer’s rejection, I understood the frustration of a community that had made a decision and still heard “all the refutations in the world” from one individual. After all, I’ve been there often enough: watching participants in a community meeting come to a difficult decision while one person — for better or worse in the long run — just cannot get on board….

…Some readers might remember when Walter Cronkite (1916-2009) did those “You Are There” reports, like this one when he speaks from the midst of the Chicago Fire on October 18, 1871. There is a big difference between such a “report,” however contrived, and more distant approaches to history….

One of the effects of the SVARA-inspired slow pace through the material, I’m realizing, is a little like those Cronkite reports: I am there in a way I had not been before.

Learning unfamiliar jargon — or “technical terms” — of the Talmud, as SVARA-inspired spaces encourage, also promotes the “you are there” experience. Some other Talmud studies have included such terms, but I’ve never before been in a group where the practice is to stick with one bit of text until we all have the basics of how it arrived. I now know, for example, that “we learned there” [t’nan hatam] doesn’t reference something taught elsewhere in Babylon or in Jerusalem: instead, it means “elsewhere in the text” (and I am now able to locate the citations on the page). Rabbi Tuchman teaches us to recognize shifts from Mishnah to Gemara and back and make sure we know who is speaking to whom and when. Being asked to constantly orient ourselves within the text makes for a different experience of it.

When the carob tree gets up and moves 100 cubits for Rabbi Eliezer’s proof, the rabbinical report includes the expression, “but some tell it” [v’amri lah], and the alternative recollection: “400 cubits.” In the past, I’ve read this, without giving it much weight, as two variants of a fantastic tale. But, in this word-by-word, step-by-step shuffle with the text I hear two sets of witnesses telling me that they were there. Now, so am I.

Another Cliff-Hanger

Rabbi Lauren Tuchman’s Contemplative Bet Midrash left us all, at the end of our last session, in the midst of a dispute about cooking that has spiraled into strange realms. A group of Hakhamim have made their decision, while Rabbi Eliezer, so convinced of his own point of view, moves from verbal arguments to calling on supernatural “proof.” Witnesses saw the carob tree move 100 cubits, though some say it was 400 cubits. But the Hakhamim don’t accept that as “evidence” in this oven dispute.

Where will the frustration, anger, pride, arguments and magic lead? How will community kashrut standards be effected? What will be the result of those decisions in terms of holiness? What will be the effect on the community?

I confess to an inclination to read ahead or binge watch to the conclusion. But one of the things this slow dance teaches is that any such conclusion would be meaningless. The real goal is not to “finish” the story, maybe choosing to be #TeamEliezer or #TeamHakhamim along the way. The goal — at least as I understand things this week — is to consider the story together with others, sharing insights and concerns, and to experience together real fears for how this will all turn out for the individuals and the community involved. And that includes us.

It’s uncomfortable, even a little scary, up here on this cliff. But we won’t get down on our own.




NOTES on the Oven of Akhnai, Imma Shalom, and Women in the Talmud NOTES:

  • Akhnai
  • Imma Shalom
  • Levinas and The Akhnai Story
    • Levinas, Emmanuel. Nine Talmudic Readings. Annette Aronowicz, trans. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990. Lectures 1963-1975 in French
    • Rabbi Goldie Milgram, Reclaiming Judaism, offered a series of classes on the Levinas chapters at National Havurah Committee Summer Institute
    • The chapter, “Desacralization and Disenchantment,” looks at Sanhedrin 67a-68a, which describes the end of Rabbi Eliezer’s life. (It was this chapter I had the opportunity to explore in a long-ago week-long class at the Institute.)

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Ishmael, Isaac, and a Reunion of Cousins

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What can the story of Ishmael and Isaac, especially its conclusion in Genesis 25:7ff, tell us “about renewing the cousinship of Blacks and Jews — and of people who live in both communities — when white nationalists are threatening both”?

The Shalom Center suggests that the Torah reading(s) for Rosh Hashanah, which highlight the endangerment and separation of Ishmael and Isaac, “cry out for turning and healing.” Toward this end, Rabbi Arthur Waskow proposes an additional reading for Yom Kippur: Gen 25:7-11, wherein the two brothers join together to bury their father and “Isaac goes to live at the wellspring that is Ishmael’s home.”

Arthur suggests that reading this tale at the end of the Days of Awe “can remind us as individuals that it is always possible for us to turn away from anger and toward reconciliation.” In addition it can remind us that the descendants of Isaac (Jewish people) and of Ishmael (Islam and Arab peoples) “need to turn toward compassion for each other.” (More on this idea at “5 Offerings for a Deep and Powerful Yom Kippur. The “cousins” paragraph, quoted above, is from a print Shalom Center communication elaborating on this Yom Kippur reading suggestion.)

Renewing Cousinship

Arthur taught at Fabrangen Havurah, probably twenty years ago, on the topic of Ishmael and Isaac jointly burying their father. Since then, I’ve thought many times about this part of the tale and its power to point us either toward reconciliation or toward less helpful paths. I don’t think I ever explored it in terms of “renewing the cousinship” of Black and Jewish communities before, however. And, because this is an on-going and strong concern for me, I plan to pursue this in some detail in the days ahead — for the high holidays and beyond. Our communities are much in need of turning and healing.

I am not yet sure if this is a continuation of last year’s #ExploringBabylon or a new direction. Either way, I hope you will join in, by subscribing if you have not already done so — follow buttons are now at the VERY BOTTOM of posts — and contributing your thoughts.

Life at the Wellspring

“Isaac goes to live at the wellspring that is Ishmael’s home.”

This is what struck me most powerfully in Arthur’s teaching this year. In year’s past, I thought in terms of interfaith understanding, of the wellspring as a fundamental source that Isaac and Ishmael share and a common link to Hagar. Viewing the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael as members of Jewish and Black communities today, however, raised new questions:

  • Beer Lahai Roi is where Ishmael settled after being expelled from the family home. So what does it mean that Isaac is now living there?
    • Is this true brotherly reunion, generally accepted by others in the neighborhood?
    • Or does this look to some like colonization of the exiled brother’s home?
    • Do the brothers fairly share a joint family heritage in the wellspring?
    • Or is Isaac somehow appropriating what had been Ishmael’s?
  •  Beer Lahai Roi is a powerful place of God-connection at times of severe travail for Hagar. So what does it mean that Isaac settled there?
    • Did separate traumas experienced by Isaac and Ishmael lead them, by divine guidance, perhaps, to a joint source of healing?
    • Or did Isaac seek out Ishmael hoping his older brother could guide him?
    • Do the brothers learn from one another?
    • Or do they, with some rare exceptions, like burying their father, retreat into their own pain?

Perhaps midrash — ancient, modern, or newly discovered — will reveal some answers. Maybe some of these questions are best left open.

Rosh Hashanah Torah Reading(s)

In Reform and some other congregations observing one day of Rosh Hashanah, the Torah reading is generally the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, Genesis 22:1-24. Where two days are observed, common practice is to read the Akedah story on Day Two and the story of Hagar and Ishmael being cast out, Genesis 21:1-34, on Day One.

In midrash, Sarah dies as a result of the near sacrifice of Isaac. So, whether or not Genesis 21 is read at the holiday, these stories highlight endangerment of both sons and both mothers and a family torn apart.

Genesis 25:7ff, when the brothers bury Abraham, is read as part of the regular Torah cycle, parashat Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18) but is not part of the traditional readings for the Days of Awe.
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Lament for Mismatched Glassware

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Exploring Babylon Chapter 16.1

At several points in the Megillah reading, the chant for the Book of Esther shifts to the Lamentations chant. The lament behind some verses seems clear: Mordecai’s introduction as a descendant of Babylonian exiles (2:6) and the decree telling all provinces to destroy the Jews (3:15), for example. It’s less obvious what is lamentable about three words — the whole verse does not change trope, just the three words — describing how banquet guests were served wine:

…וְכֵלִים מִכֵּלִים שׁוֹנִים…
“…the vessels being diverse one from another…” OR
“…beakers of varied design…”
— Esther 1:7

An explanation based on Esther Rabbah 2:11 brings us back to Babylon — although the spirit of Purim seems to cry out for a brief detour to consider the heartbreak of mismatched glassware. (See also note on publication schedule.)

Vessels at the Feast

The Megillah describes the decorations in the palace, the ornate couches, and “vessels of gold” used at the king’s seven-day feast. The text then adds: “Also Vashti the queen made a feast for the women in the royal house which belonged to king Ahasuerus” (Esther 1:8).

There is no mention of the vessels’ origin, beyond the enigmatic “shonim” [“different” or “diverse”]. (Many other explanations have been offered, over the centuries, to explain how the vessels were “different” — a topic, perhaps, for another day.) But Esther Rabbah says the vessels are “different” from ordinary ones in that those used at this feast are the same ones that Nebuchadnezzar took from the Temple in Jerusalem. The passing along of the Temple vessels is also linked in midrash to Queen Vashti.

The Megillah includes nothing about Queen Vashti’s background, although midrash has much to say about her. In terms of lineage, she is described midrashically as Babylonian royalty. She is sometimes identified as Nebuchadnezzar’s daughter (B. Megillah 10b). In one account, she is married to Ahashverus, who was her father’s steward (Esther Rabbah 3:14). Alternatively, she was the daughter of Belshazzar, and Darius married her to his son, Ahashverus, after her father was killed (Esther Rabbah 3:5). The latter story also provides a direct link between Vashti and the vessels in her palace, on the one hand, and, on the other, Belshazzar and the vessels at the “writing on the wall” feast (Daniel 5).

Daniel 5 opens with Belshazzar calling for “the golden and silver vessels which Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken out of the temple which was in Jerusalem.” It is clear, from the text (and midrash) that the party is meant to show contempt for Hebrews and all they hold sacred. The Megillah, in contrast, describes the feasting at the palace of Ahashverus in more neutral terms, while more negative connotations have been added by layers of midrash.

Offspring of Babylon

A strong thread in the negative midrash related to the Megillah stems from identification of Vashti as the “offspring” of Babylon:

וְקַמְתִּי עֲלֵיהֶם, נְאֻם יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת; וְהִכְרַתִּי לְבָבֶל שֵׁם וּשְׁאָר, וְנִין וָנֶכֶד–נְאֻם-יְהוָה.
And I will rise up against them, saith the LORD of hosts, and cut off from Babylon name and remnant, and offshoot and offspring, saith the LORD.
— Isaiah 14:22.

R. Jonathan prefaced his discourse on this section (Book of Esther) with the text, And I will rise against them… (Isa 14:22) [which he expounded as follows]: ‘Name’ means script; ‘remnant’ is language; ‘offshoot’ is kingdom, and ‘offspring’ is Vashti.
— B. Megillah 10b

R. Jonathan’s interpretation of the Isaiah verse can also be linked to the decree about households using the husband’s language (Esther 1:22 — midrash citation to come). Meanwhile, however, Vashti’s brief appearance and then exile have a powerful influence on the rest of the story. (See, for just one example, “The Role of Vashti in the Purim Story,” by Deena Rabinovich — PDF here.) At least one midrash suggests that the language decree, a response to suspicion about Vashti, set up opposition to Ahashverus, resulting, ultimately, in preservation of the Jews (again, citation to come). So perhaps Vashti, as offspring of Babylon, comes to tell us that the past is not so easy to eradicate, and that we are strengthened by preserving lessons — and cultural diversity — brought to us by the past.

Lamentable Banquet Service

This is based very loosely on the “Poetry Game,” created by Zahara Hecksher (9/12/64-2/24/18; her memory for a blessing), and offered in her honor and memory.

Vessels
Instructions:

  • Something in your poem occurs in an alley
  • Refer to a problem in a factory
  • Include the phrase “I remember ____” in your poem

Resulting poem: “Lament for Mismatched Glassware”

Goblets special ordered.
The king wants his display.
“It is time for us to host
A palace feast awash with wine
fine vessels for a toast.”

The queen cannot shake misgivings.
“I remember,” she explains,
“that writing on the wall.
A lavish party, I suspect,
may not end well at all.”

As the date grows near
workshop staff reports the order gone awry.
It appears that no two goblets match.
And not just one odd barrel,
batch after hodgepodge batch.

Palace staff is in the alley
unpacking mismatched wares.
Amid his duties the steward fears.
Royal wrath is a grave concern
as are faux-pas-related tears.

Royal banquet time is nigh.
Guests arriving at the gates.
Will history this night malign?
In trepidation the palace serves
with beakers of varied design.


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Note to subscribers and other followers of “Exploring Babylon” —
Apologies for the hiatus born of flu and weeks of scrambling to catch up with all that was left undone.
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