This past Tuesday, my family left for Costa Rica. I’ll join them in a few weeks, but first I had to stay behind and get the house ready for our renters who moved in on Thursday.
I had no idea what “getting the house ready” really meant, but I knew I wasn’t so good at making beds. So, I called our friend and space-artist Devorah for help. I thought it would take her about a half an hour at most.
Once we got started, however, every task we finished seemed to reveal a new task that needed to be done. What I thought would be a half hour turned into 11.5 hours! Thank G-d for Devorah- I couldn’t have done it without her.
All the little details- the soaps, the towels, the flowers, the toilet paper- I wanted to arrange everything just right so that the space would be welcoming to our new guests.
Not that any of those little details were so significant in and of themselves; their significance was that all together, they created a welcoming space. For me, a space that’s clear, beautiful and uncluttered says “welcome”. But even more importantly, a beautiful space makes room to notice a different kind of space- your inner space.
What is inner space?
Space- inner or outer- isn’t something we generally hear about very much. People like to talk about the things that occupy space- objects in the outer world or thoughts and ideas in the inner world- but rarely do we hear about the space itself. After all, space is nothing, so there’s nothing much to talk about. You can’t see or touch it.
And yet, your inner space is that which sees and touches. It’s the space of your own awareness. It’s the openness in which these words are appearing, in this moment. In fact, your own inner space is not something different from this moment.
And that’s why a beautiful external space can help you to connect with your inner space-
When you feel welcomed, it’s easy to be welcoming. In that inner opening of welcome, the beauty of this moment can blossom.
But once you are conscious of this, you no longer need anything external to welcome this moment. In fact, you can welcome a moment of pain and ugliness just as you can welcome a moment of beauty and peace.
This week’s reading begins with a story of Avraham’s ability to embody hospitality even in the midst of intense discomfort:
“Vayeira eilav Hashem b’eilonei Mamrei, v’hu yosheiv petakh ha’ohel k’khom hayom-
"The Divine appeared to him (Avraham) in the plains of Mamrei, while he was sitting at entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.”
Rashi comments that Avraham was not merely basking in the Divine bliss, he was experiencing intense discomfort-
“Said Rabbi Chama the son of Chanina: It was the third day from his circumcision, and the Holy Blessed One came and inquired about his welfare.” (Rashi, Bereishis 18:1)
Avraham is recovering from being circumcised, while roasting in the intense heat! And, to make it worse, three strangers suddenly show up.
What does he do?
“Vayar vayarotz likratam-
“He saw and ran to greet them…”
He runs out to the strangers and begs them to stop and rest. He fetches water to wash their feet. He and Sarah prepare food.
How is he able to be so welcoming in such an unpleasant situation?
Let’s look back at the Hebrew in the opening line. The usual translation says that the Divine appeared to him “in the heat of the day.”
But, the Hebrew doesn’t actually say that.
“In the heat of the day” would normally be “B’khom hayom.”
The Hebrew is actually- “K’khom hayom”- AS the heat of the day!
Read this way, it’s saying that the Divine is appearing to him as the discomfort of the heat! Discomfort is a form of God.
Furthermore, the word “Hayom” which means “the day” can also simply mean “today”.
What is “today”? Today is the open space of this moment, in which these words are now appearing.
So Avraham welcomes the painful moment in which he finds himself as his Divine guest. The very next moment, Avraham’s solitude is over, and God appears as three strangers- so he welcomes them as well and feeds them.
Whatever the moment brings, it’s all just different forms of the One Reality. The message?
Welcome this moment! God is visiting!
Take a moment now to see, hear, feel the presence of this moment. Take a breath- welcome it's ever-changing appearance. Let this moment be your friend, your intimate. As the Sabbath hymn says, "Boi Kalah- Come, oh Bride!"
As I write these words on this particularly warm day in the East Bay, I am (thank G-d) not in pain, and I’m recovering nicely from pushing myself to the limit for the sake of hospitality.
And thanks to my friend Janet who has generously taken in this new wayfarer for the next few weeks, I am now the recipient of her wonderful hospitality! Thank you Janet!!
There’s a story that on a particularly cold winter evening in early nineteenth century Poland, a group of learned guests came to visit the father of then five-year-old Simchah Bunem. While they were eating, the father called in his son, and said: “My boy, go and prepare us some novel interpretation of the laws of hospitality.”
When the child returned after a little while, his father asked, “Well, what have you got?”
The boy beckoned the guests to follow him into another room. Curious, they followed him, eagerly anticipating some impressive teaching from the young prodigy. When they entered the room, they were caught pleasantly by surprise: for each of them the boy had made up a bed for the night, with pillows and quilts all neatly in place!
On this Shabbat Vayeira, the Sabbath of Appearance, may we grow ever more deeply in the Torah of Welcome- welcoming those who appear to us in our lives with a generous spirit of hospitality.
And, may we always remember to welcome this moment as the appearance of the One Reality- be it hot or cool, remote or intimate- making room for That which is now appearing…
This is my family’s final week in the Bay Area as we pack up the entire house and prepare to leave on Tuesday for our year in Costa Rica.
And, serendipitously, this week’s Torah portion happens to be Lekh L’kha- the beginning of Abraham and Sarah’s journey as well.
But those who know me know that I don’t care for hot weather and I don’t really speak Spanish.
So they ask me, “Are you anxious? Are you worried?”
Let me tell you about worry:
Several years ago, I helped train eleven and twelve-year-olds for their bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies, at a congregation out in the suburbs.
One day, the school director asked me into her office.
She spoke about the lack of progress in some of the students, and asked how we could best help them get prepared. I told her my teaching plans and also suggested some new ideas, but she seemed somehow dissatisfied. She had a puzzled look on her face and seemed like she wanted to say something.
“Is there anything wrong?” I asked.
“Well, I guess I don’t feel like you are worrying enough about these kids. I want you to worry about them.”
She was uncomfortable that I wasn’t worrying!
If you want to stop worrying in your own life, it’s important to understand the psychology of worry. Why do we cling to worry so much that a lack of worry seems suspicious?
It’s because we tend to equate worrying with caring. We are afraid that if we aren’t worried, then we won’t be motivated to do what is right; we won’t care.
But this is true only if you lose connection with the present and instead become absorbed into the narrative of whatever it is that you care about. When you live in the story of what you think is going on, rather than what is going on, than the drama of the story takes over your emotional life. “Caring” and “worrying” become one in the same.
When the worrying becomes unbearable, you’ve got to replace the story in your head with some other story. That’s why so many folks feel the need to distract themselves from life with television, movies, gossip or whatever. The story-addicted mind can only relax and let go of the story it worries about by grasping onto some other fake or more entertaining story.
But if you live in what really is going on- that is, live in the present- then worry is nothing but excess tension. What would you need that for?
When you are present, you can express your intention without being in tension.
To fully enter the present, you must leave behind your assumptions. If you believe that you must worry in order to get anything done, then that will be true for you.
But beliefs come from the past, and you can free yourself from them. Relax your mind and let go of whatever it thinks it knows. Touch this moment as it is- its texture, it's sounds, its feel. Leave behind the known land of assumptions and habits and you may discover something new, as God tells Abraham in this week’s reading:
“Lekh l’klha mei’artz’kha… el ha'aretz asher arekah...”
“Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you…”
Abram (who later becomes Abraham) is told to leave everything familiar- his land, his family, his parents, to discover “the land I will show you.”
If you continue to cling to your assumptions and habits, the result is known- you will get more of what you’ve gotten in the past! But if you are willing to leave all that behind, you can’t possibly know what will be the result. You can only be “shown” by taking the jump and seeing what happens.
It’s true that life occasionally brings us to moments of opportunity and decision-
-but when it comes to living in the present, every moment (which really means this moment) gives us this opportunity. For the only thing that is old about this moment is the narrative you bring to it. Meet this moment afresh, and everything is new.
The Baal Shem Tov is said to have taught the following on the opening blessing of the Amidah, the central Jewish prayer.
He asked, “Why do we say, ‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob’? Why don’t we simply say ‘God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’? It’s because when each of the patriarchs met the Divine, it was completely new. It wasn’t the story of the Divine given by their parents.”
Connection with the Divine is not something that can be given. It can’t be transmitted from parent to child, or from teacher to student. The Real God is not the story of God we read about in books.
Rather, God is This which meets you afresh, in this moment. In fact, there is nothing except God meeting you afresh, in this moment!
As we enter this Shabbat of Going Forth, may we deeply hear the Divine Voice that calls to us from the heart of this moment, inviting us to meet It/Her/Him anew as this moment.
Recently a friend of mine posted a tragic news story on Facebook, in which some horrible violence was done in the name of religion. My friend was so disturbed by it, he said that religion should be destroyed.
The Torah might agree-
This week’s reading begins with the story of Noah’s ark, and how nearly all life was destroyed in the Great Flood due to the corruption and violence of humanity:
“Vatimalei ha’aretz hamas-
“The earth was filled with violence…” (Gen. 6:11)
But is religion really the source of the corruption and violence today? Or is there something deeper that infects and corrupts religion?
One thing is for sure:
All premeditated violence springs from a particular story that the perpetrator buys into.
Without the story of how the “other” deserves punishment for being immoral, or is guilty of various crimes, is less than human, or whatever, would it be possible for premeditated violence to exist?
Of course, there are many wonderful things created by the narrative-making mind as well. In fact, without the fiction of mental narrative, you would not know what to do when you wake up in the morning. You would not even know your own name.
The problem is not narrative, but the confusion between narrative about reality and actual Reality. That confusion happens because most of us are almost completely unaware of what Reality actually is.
Without awareness of Reality, you are bound to look for Truth in your stories. But your stories, though they may be more or less accurate, are not the same as Truth.
What is Truth?
Truth is simply this moment.
It’s your reading of these words right now. It’s the breathing movement of your body, right now. A feeling arising, a thought occurring- it’s the ever-evolving fact of this moment.
“Vay’hi khol ha’aretz safa ekhat ud’varim akhadim-
“And the whole earth was of one language and unity between all things…” (Gen. 11:1)
In the present moment, before the mind splits Reality into pieces, there is only one this, and we are all here in this Oneness. In the present, there is no that.
But in our thirst for purpose and understanding, we tend to multiply our thoughts and ignore Reality. Not content with the Mystery, we want to feel like we know something, like we’re getting somewhere, like we have meaning:
“They said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks and burn them in fire.’ And the bricks were like stone…”
The word for “brick”- “L’veinah”- shares three letters with the verb “to build” (Bet-Nun-Heh). The first two letters, Lamed-Bet, spell Lev, which means “heart”, or “mind”.
The “Bricks”, then, are not just physical bricks. They are the building blocks for the stories we hold in our hearts and minds- namely, our thoughts and words.
Our thoughts and words are the most precious expression of our inner life. They form the landscape of who we are.
But when they substitute for Reality rather than point to it, when we become enflamed with a passion for being “right” rather than being open, they burn like fire and are dense like stone.
Exiled from the present moment by our multiplying of thoughts and words, we hope to find security by building our thoughts and words into towers of narrative:
“Come, let us build a tower with it’s top in the heavens, and let’s make a name for ourselves…”
The word for “top” here is “rosh” which also means “head”. The word for tower is “migdol” which comes from the root that means “great”. We try to capture the Ineffable Greatness with our heads!
But there is a problem: there is no limit to the number of different and conflicting stories we create.
Sometimes I listen to people debate. I will listen to the conservatives and the progressives. I will listen to the theists and the atheists. Almost invariably, there is an unwillingness to hear the valid points of the other. Real communication is rare; it’s all just opposing stories, babbling at one another.
“Hashem said, ‘Let us confuse their language’... that is why it was called Babel…”
But there is another way.
In the beginning of our parshah, we are introduced to the savior of all life:
“Et HaElokim Hit’halekh Noakh-
“Noah walked with the Divine…”
The name Noakh comes from the root that means “rest”. It has a passive quality. And yet, this kind of rest is in motion; it “walks”.
The mind grasps after something solid, something static and secure, but the Divine (Truth, Reality) is not something static. The present moment is ever flowing, ever in motion. It cannot be made into a tower, an idol, or an edifice. So to “walk with the Divine” is actually to rest the grasping of the mind and relax into the movement of the present.
After all, as soon as your mind tries to grasp this moment as something solid, the moment is already being washed away. The flood is constantly coming.
What will save us?
Only the quality of Noakh- the one who can rest into the flow of Reality.
“Make an ark of gopher wood…”
The word for “ark” is “teva”, which also means “word”. A word is a representation of something; it’s not the thing itself. So to rest in the flow of Reality, make your words of wood, not stone. Let them be alive, supple.
“A window you shall make from above…”
Let your words be open to the heavens, rather than trying to reach the heavens. Your mind cannot capture the infinity of the heavens!
But relax your mind open to this moment, and let the inspiration flow downward. Like the rains of the flood, inspiration washes away the old and dead towers of thought, but gives life to the mind that is open like a window.
The Kotzker Rebbe once surprised a group of learned men with the question-
"Where is God present?"
They laughed at him, assuming that he must be thinking of God as a limited being that would exist in once place and not in others. "Of course, God's Presence is everywhere! As it says, 'm'lo kol ha'aretz k'vodo- The whole world is filled with It's glory!'" (Isaiah 6:3)
"No," replied the Kotzker, "God's Presence is wherever you let It in."
My friends- on this Shabbat Noakh, the Sabbath of Rest, may we relax free from the narratives that trap and divide us. May our thoughts and words be like open windows, permeable to the Presence of the Ineffable Present. May our species speedily grow into this wisdom and remake our world in the image of love, care and respect for all life.
When I was about two or three years old, my parents took me on vacation.
I have a memory of a boy playing by the pool, filling his plastic bucket with water and splashing it on people. As I walked by him, he made an angry growling noise and threw some water on me.
Without a thought, I just pushed him into the pool and watched him slowly sink to the bottom. Immediately, a barrage of adults surged all around me. Men in suits threw off their jackets and dove into the water. In a moment he was safe, and I stood there watching in astonishment.
He coughed a bit, looked at me and said, “Next time I’ll push you in the pool!”
I wonder sometimes what my life would have been like if I had accidentally killed that boy, and I am so grateful that he was saved from my innocent but deadly push. At that age, I had no idea what the consequence of pushing him into the water would be. It was just an impulse.
As adults, we know that we can’t breathe underwater, and that we must constantly breathe to stay alive. And yet, there is a different kind of breathing that many people are barely aware of at all- not a physical breathing, but a kind of inner breathing, without which you can “drown” in your own life.
Meaning, you can “drown” in the “water” of your roles, your desires, your opinions, your memories, everything that seems to make up your life.
This “water”, however, actually exists only in only your mind. This “water” is nothing but thought!
The more continuous your stream of thinking, the less space there is to “breathe”- meaning, the less you can feel the openness and ease that is available when simply living in the present. This continuous stream of thinking is not malicious or evil; it is just an impulse. But it's an incredibly strong impulse.
Most people function on very little “breathing”. Their minds “come up for air” only occasionally, take a “breath”, then dive back into the waters of thought.
Some people, unfortunately, lose the ability to come up at all, and end up drowning in the stresses and pressures of life, all created by thought. For these people, there is no longer any ability to differentiate between thought and reality. Everything is seen as a projection of the mind.
Who will save them?
Is it possible to awaken from the dream of your own mind, to come up and breathe the life-giving air of the present?
It is possible, but to do it, you have to make the background the foreground.
For most, the present moment glows faintly in the background, while the foreground is filled with the noisy waters of thought.
But when the background becomes the foreground, the texture of this moment becomes bright, alive and new, as if seen for the first time. This is hinted at in the very first verse of the Torah. This week’s reading begins:
“Bereisheet bara Elokim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz-
“In the beginning, the Divine created the heavens and the earth.“
The 12th century Kabbalistic text known as “The Bahir” equates the word “Reisheet”, which means “Beginning”, with the word “Hokhma”, which means “Wisdom” or “Consciousness”, by means of a verse that connects the two:
“Reisheet hokhmah yirat Hashem-
“The beginning of consciousness is awe of the Divinity of Existence…” (Psalm 111:10)
When your own awareness (Hokhmah) meets this moment, it has the quality of brightness, of newness (Reisheet).
This is also hinted at by the duality of “heavens and “earth”-
When the “heavens” of your awareness meet the “earth” of all of your sense perceptions- then everything is be-reisheet- with (be) the quality of beginning-ness (reisheet).
We’ve all known this newness at the very beginning of our lives. As an infant, you didn’t know your name. The infant has no story. Just like a cat rolling in the sun, like a bird flying in the sky, like a worm tunneling through the earth- the newborn is fresh and alive in this moment.
But then the story begins.
The child learns its name, its roles, its story, and the confusing mix between direct perception and all these mental narratives starts to obscure the present moment. As it says:
“V’ha’aretz hayta tohu vavohu, v’hoshekh al p’nai tahom-
“And the earth was confusion and chaos, with darkness on the face of the depths…”
But fortunately, there is a path out of this confusion:
“V’ruakh Elohim merakhefet al p’nai hamayim-
“And the Divine hovered over the face of the waters-“
Rather than drown in the waters of your mind, you can “hover” over it simply by consciously noticing what your mind is doing. In deciding to notice your own thoughts, you can command your inner “light” into the darkness:
“Vayomer Elohim ‘y’hi ohr’
“And the Divine said, ‘let there be light!’”
Simply notice what’s going on in your own mind: “There is a thought about such-and such.”
And when notice it, what happens?
You may find your mind becomes quiet all by itself, revealing an experience of Reality without the burden of mind, without the burden of time. Practice this often, and eventually a new light will be revealed:
“And there was light!”
This “light” is the dawning of the brightness that was there when you were a newborn, before you were a “someone”. It hasn’t changed! It was overlaid with narrative, but it never went anywhere.
This goodness of life in the present in not something you have to believe in. It’s not about philosophy. It’s something you can see directly:
“Vayar Elohim et ha’ohr ki tov-
“The Divine saw that the light was good!”
And so the Torah opens not merely with a cosmology or a mythology, but with a description of awakening- a Torah of Awakening.
Of all the Hassidic rebbes, Reb Zushia of Hanipole was particularly known for his simple wisdom that transcended the intellectual complexity characterizing so much of Jewish teaching.
According to one story, when asked to reveal his core teaching on what’s most important, he replied, “To me, the most important thing is whatever I happen to be doing in the moment.”
Again, none of this is to put down or devalue the mind and thinking. After all, you wouldn’t denigrate your clothing for not being your body! You wouldn’t insult a menu for not being food!
It’s only that when we confuse thought for reality, we tend to lose reality. Then we are literally living in a dream, and dreams can become nightmares.
Of course, bringing the power of awakening into its full potential for your life takes training and practice. Soon I’ll be launching a new opportunity for you to get that training and practice in this new year. Stay tuned!
As we enter the gates of Autumn and this Shabbat of Beginnings, may these opening words of Torah inspire us to not forget the inherent goodness, newness and freedom that is our birthright and nature-
-the ever-available, ever-flowing present moment.
For a few weeks we had suspected that there was a mouse in the house.
First, the strange little pieces of refuse that would show up on the floor when we knew we had already swept. Then, the little mysterious scratchy sounds I would hear when I knew everyone else was asleep. But we knew for sure when we found that a bag of leftover hallah had been chewed through.
Not knowing how the mouse got in and out, we quickly became much more disciplined about putting all our food away! We could tell the mouse was still coming in, but most of the time there was nothing for it to steal.
It wasn’t until Sukkot began, however, that I actually saw it.
We were eating in the sukkah, when I went back into the house to get the main course. As soon as entered the back door of our house, I saw the little mouse scurry across the floor and squeeze right through a little opening below a sliding door that goes into the wall.
I took some plastic bags and pushed them into the opening to block it, then used duct tape to seal it up. A temporary measure, but the mouse seems to have not returned, leaving the sanctuary of our home free from it for now.
But there is another kind of sanctuary- a space in which the heart is free and the mind is clear. That space is a sanctuary from all stress, from all problems, from all tzures.
That space is the present moment.
It is ever available, and always right here. And yet, the ordinary human mind is unaware of this space. Living life almost entirely through the screen of thinking, this sanctuary is overrun with the “rodents” of thought.
Craving some peace, one attempts to put life in order so that the rodents won’t disturb anything too much. Unaware of where the rodents are coming from, all you can do is put the food away so as not to attract them.
By “putting the food away” I mean arranging your life to your liking- organizing things so that stress and chaos are kept at bay. This is a wonderful thing. I’ll tell you, our kitchen was never so consistently clean as when that mouse forced us to develop better habits!
But once you see where the mouse is coming from, you can seal up the hole at its source. Meaning- once you see that the source of all chaos and worry is your own mind, you can “close the hole” through which chaos and misery enter.
Then, you can still clean your kitchen if you want to, but you’re not dependant on it. Meaning- you can organize your life to maximum benefit, but even when life is chaotic externally, even when there is loss, failure and uncertainty, the Sanctuary of the Present is not lost. Your mind can be free from those “rodents” of excess thinking, and in that clarity the Sanctuary reveals itself.
And yet, this is still a big secret, even for long-time spiritual practitioners!
Many people enter the Sanctuary in their moments of avodah, of meditation, ritual, chanting and so on, but cannot seem to stay connected in the midst of life.
In this week’s special reading for Shabbat Sukkot, Moses seems to have this very problem. Moses- the one who speaks to Hashem face-to-face, is afraid that the Divine Presence will not accompany him on his journey of leading the people (Exodus 33:12):
“Re’eh Atah omer eilai, ha’al et ha’am hazeh-
See, You say to me, ‘take this people onward’, but You did not reveal whom You will send with me!”
Moses is afraid that the One who sends him on his mission will abandon him. What is Hashem’s response?
“Panai yelekhu v’hanikhoti lakh-
My Presence will go and give you rest!”
The Presence “goes” wherever you go!
That’s because the “Presence” is not something separate from your own presence, from your awareness when it is actually present. And when your awareness is present, there is “rest”.
The word here for “I will give rest”, hanikhoti, has the same root as the name Noakh, the fellow who built the ark for the great flood. Whether the metaphor is rodents or destructive floodwaters, the idea is the same- there is an ark that floats above the raging waters in which you can find refuge.
In the case of Moses and the Israelites, they lived in temporary dwellings on their journeys- the sukkot in which Jews everywhere are now dwelling for this holiday that commemorates the ancient dwellings of the Israelites.
The sukkah is a sanctuary, yet it is hardly a solid thing. Open to the sky, vulnerable to the elements, it is really just a frame, not secure at all.
And that’s the paradox- that “sealing the hole” and securing your mind from the “rodents” of thought does not mean something hard or effortful. No plastic and duct tape! It means relaxing the mind, allowing the mind to be open to the fullness of what is already present.
But still, to do this constantly takes a special kind of effort that eludes most people. So much of the language of prayer is longing for the fruit of this effort!
As King David says in Psalm 27:
“Akhat Sha’alti me’eit Hashem-
Only one thing I ask of You, Hashem, that I should dwell in Your house and meditate in Your sanctuary all the days of my life!”
The Sanctuary of Presence is ever-present, yet it is so easy to block it. Think of this- the sun is 864,938 miles in diameter, yet you can block its view entirely with just your little hand.
And yet, even while you are blocking the Presence, the blocking is itself happening in the present! The only thing blocking God, ultimately, is God- as God tells Moses a few verses later (Exodus 33:22):
“It will be when My Glory passes, I shall place you in a cleft in the rock and shield you with My hand…”
When our fleeting and immaterial thoughts hide the “Glory” of this passing moment, hardening the openness of the present into what feels like a narrow cleft of rock on all sides, remember: Your thoughts themselves are also part of this moment. Accept them with openness and let them pass as well.
In accepting and releasing your thoughts, they can dissolve, revealing the open space once again, as Hashem says next:
“Then I will remove My hand and you will see my ‘back’…”
Meaning, you will see in retrospect that your thoughts blocking the Sanctuary are themselves part of the Sanctuary. They are part of the reality of the present moment.
But the more simple and direct path is simply to bring your attention to literally anything physical that is already present. The more you train yourself to do this, the more you will become aware of the space behind whatever is present- the ineffable openness that is the present moment.
There is a story of Reb Shneur Zalman of Liadi, that once he asked his son what he “prays with”. The boy answered that he inspires himself with the verse, “Every form shall prostrate itself before You.”
The boy then asked the rebbe, “What do you pray with, Abba?”
The rebbe answered, “I pray with the bench and the floor.”
On this Shabbat Sukkot, may we commit our attention ever more deeply to the bench on which we sit and the floor on which we stand, that we might open ever more deeply to the Sukkat Shalom- the Space of Peace that is this moment in which we now live.
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