Category Archives: Judaism

Recognizing the Good

The truth of the happenstance circumstances of my life is that I am very fortunate. I was born into a family with two dedicated parents, one kind older sister who tolerated my unending interest in her glamourous, five-year old life, and a brother-to-come who quickly became and remains one of my best friends. We lived in a house that just contained us and a dog. The lights never went out because we couldn’t afford the utility bills. Mean people from the government never stormed into our home, scaring us out of our wits or worse. Mother nature never unleashed her fury upon our heads. None of my friends ever died or disappeared. I managed to survive a rebellious adolescence. I have had interesting work experiences and along the way, met people with talent, commitment, and integrity. That is all before I met my husband and we began our life together which includes a move across the country to start anew, two healthy children, and many friends here and afar who we love.

I have a lot to be thankful for. Most of the time, I don’t even think about it.

In the Mussar class I am taking we have moved on from studying humility to gratitude.  Here’s how it is described in the book, Everyday Holiness. “The Hebrew term for gratitude is hakarat ha’tov, which means literally, ‘recognizing the good.’ The good is already there. Practicing gratitude means being fully aware of the good that is already yours.”

A big part of practicing gratitude is learning not to take for granted the good things in your life. We forget to notice the good, Mussar teachers say, for a few reasons: We are too busy pursuing the enjoyment of worldly things, we become so accustomed to our gifts that they appear to us as permanent and unremarkable, and we are so focused on the travails and afflictions of our lives that we forget to notice that our very being and all we own are among the good things that we have to be thankful for.

It is this last point, recognizing the gift of my being, that strikes me the most. I can see that I take for granted all of the things and the important people in my life. And I can see how it could be beneficial to acknowledge all of my good fortune, both to improve my perspective on my life (are things going well or not?) and also to create a more open heart in how I relate to others.

But in my meditation practice, as I sit and focus on my breath trying to cultivate mindfulness, I keep thinking about how grateful I should be for my breath. It sustains my life. Without it, there would be nothing else. It reminds me of a story I read recently about a person who was struggling with mindfulness meditation and went to speak to a teacher about it. The student found following the breath to be boring. The teacher suggested they do a practice in which it quickly became difficult to breathe, leaving the beginner gasping. “Now is it so boring?” the teacher asked.

An essay I read recently said that when we focus on the breath, we are focusing on the life force. Life begins with our first breath and will end after our last. To contemplate breathing is to contemplate life itself. As I go about my day today, I will try to remember not to take for granted all that I have to be thankful for. But most of all, I will try to remember to be very grateful for the breath that sustains me in the most basic way.

The Ogre In Me

It all started on Saturday morning when I woke up in the worst mood. I came downstairs to join my husband and children and couldn’t stand any of them. My older son wanted to tell me everything he had thought or done since he woke up and every ounce of my being wanted to shout, “Be quiet!” My younger son came running to me for shelter from his older brother’s taunts and I tried to squirm away from his clutches. I warned my husband of the clouds over my head and he knew enough to steer clear of me.

I tried to use some Buddhist teachings to get me out of the funk. “I’m getting attached to my thoughts. Just let it go and let each moment be what it is.” Problem was, each moment was more annoying than the one that came before it. “I’m adding fuel to my own suffering. This is about me, not them.” None of it was working. I knew I was toxic to be around so I decided to clean the house.

All day I cleaned the house. You might think, “That’ll do the trick!” I thought it would. I still felt grumpy, but the house looked spiffy.

We went out that night with friends and I forgot about my bad mood. We had a great time. The next morning, the ogre in me was back. Sigh. We spent most of the day at a cyclocross bike race at a park in our neighborhood. My husband and kids all raced and we set up a tent where we grilled sausages, cooked frites, and drank beer. My husband is really into bike racing (check out his awesome blog) and this day in the park was his birthday party.

At one point during my husband’s race, while me and the kids and a bunch of friends stood cheering on the sidelines, my younger son started doing that charming testing thing that three year-olds do. It goes like this: I say, don’t go over the line onto the course. My son dips his shoulder under the tape that is strung from pole to pole along the edges of the race course. I say, don’t do it. He does it with his toe. I say, do you want to go sit in the car. He looks at me. I say, don’t. He waves his hand under the tape. And so on.

I’ve been a parent long enough that usually I can pull something besides brute force out of my bag of tricks to get us up and over this hurdle and into something more enjoyable. But not yesterday. I went into total reaction mode. Grabbed him and carried him off to another area where we were away from our friends. We didn’t make it all the way back to the car, but he got the message. He’d been removed. He was crying. I felt like crying too.

The rest of the day wasn’t quite so dramatic, but I could feel myself having little patience with pretty much everything. That night I went to bed early.

This morning started out on the same track until I was driving the kids to school when suddenly a lightbulb went on in my head. This weekend has been about the latest concept we have been studying in my Mussar class: the yetzer ha’ra. I mentioned it in another post awhile back, but this was the first time I think I’ve really experienced it. Here it is explained in the book Everyday Holiness.

We are born with free will and can choose to do good or bad, but whenever we try to do something that stretches us in the direction of good, we need to expect to encounter this inner resistance arising from the shadows. We have an inner inclination to elevate and purify ourselves – that’s the yetzer ha’tov, the impulse to do good – and what stands in our way is the built-in adversary, the yetzer ha’ra.

I think it is interesting that this tension defines the Jewish concept of free will. For me, the idea of an impulse to do good versus an impulse to do evil is a question of whether I can keep my focus on cultivating an inner life or just get swept up in the daily flow of my busy life.

Mussar teachers say it takes great strength to control the yetzer ha’ra, which by the way, is not something to be extinguished. Before now I did not understand what this meant. Now I think I do. If this mood this weekend can be understood as a manifestation of my yetzer ha’ra, then I see now the power of my inner adversary. For all the tricks I tried: cleaning, meditation, exercise, nothing seemed quite enough to overcome that grouchy, irritable, impatient side of me. To control that, harness it somehow? It’s daunting. I stand humbled, which is right where I want to be.


I’m a really good do-er. Give me a to-do list and I’m all over it. Take the other morning for example. I: planned the kids’ birthday parties (both kids in born in December, shoot me now); wrote out, enveloped, and sent checks in the mail; responded to a bunch of emails; created a menu plan and a subcategory list of food to buy for upcoming visit from in-laws; arranged to have house cleaned for said visit; and more stuff I can’t remember now, all while diligently commenting on my friends’ Facebook updates.

While in the throes of ticking off these items I’m high on productivity. It’s like I’m mainlining power, control, competency. Damn, I’m good.

Then the crash. All items on the list are scratched off and my head hurts. I feel tired, like I want to go to sleep. I decide to make some coffee instead. The rest of the day my mind circles back to the decisions I made, maybe even glancing now and then at the list. Did I really get all of that done? I’m just looking for another hit. Can I get the high back?

The fact is things need to get done. If the kids don’t have birthday parties, I’m a bad mommy. Like the kind that gets written about in embarrassing, tell-all memoirs. Checks have to be sent or the house doesn’t have electricity. The in-laws would like to feel welcomed, so some planning must occur. No one is saying you shouldn’t take care of the business of your life. But while you’re so busy being productive, who’s really in the driver’s seat?

Recently while we were meditating my Buddhism teacher said, “If you’ve drifted off, welcome yourself back into yourself.” Then he added, “Where did you go?” I don’t know where I go. I get carried away. Productivity is an especially compelling train of thought; the Buddhists call it restless mind. It gives me a false sense of mastering my world, making it better, making it right. The impulse isn’t bad. I think I’m just barking up the wrong tree.

Jewish people have the Sabbath, a day of rest. It is considered to be of utmost importance. “The apparently simple idea that one day out of seven should be devoted to rest and reflection has always been a radical concept,” writes Anita Diamant in her book, Living a Jewish Life. “It is Judaism’s essential insight, its backbone, its methodology.”

Them’s big words. A day of rest is Judaism’s essential insight?

Diamant cites Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who said that Shabbat celebrates time rather than space. “It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.” Other ideas of the meaning of Shabbat include creating wholeness, or peace, with everyone in your life, especially in your family. I like this next one because I think it speaks to the false promise of productivity.

Shabbat embodies the Jewish vision of redemption. Observing Shabbat fully means behaving as if the world were redeemed – complete, safe, perfect – right now. Shabbat is the opportunity to focus on what is right with the world, and thus to be refreshed to do the work of redemption: of repairing the world (tikkun olam).

I like this idea of relinquishing the need for doing. It acknowledges both the importance of doing, but also the limits. Doing will not lead to a sense of completion, safety, or perfection. But perhaps stopping doing, could. Put the pen down and walk away from the list.

Something Amazing

The Buddha taught there is no self. This is a confusing concept. If there is no self, who’s that inside my head?

Insight meditation teachers say we identify with our thoughts, we think that is me in there. But really thoughts are just like sensations and feelings: they arise and then fall away.  Our minds are filled with thought, a waterfall effect. But with meditation we can learn to observe our thinking. There’s planning. That’s a worry. Now it’s gone. Here is sadness, what does it feel like? You begin to see how your mind works. The patterns of thought that arise. Your job is to let go, don’t jump on board.

Thinking creates a sense of separateness. Life, in fact, is interconnected, my teacher says.

Three-point-eight billion years ago life began, once, on the planet. All of life as we know it is an adaptation from that original cell. The adaptations are like a numerator, while among all life there is a common denominator. Coming back to that common denominator, you see it is not important, those apparent differences.

I find this idea of a common denominator striking because it seems that he is describing how life is interconnected. He talks about the arrogance of the human species, so often acting superior to other life forms. It lines up well with the topic of humility, which we are studying in my Mussar class. In Mussar, we are looking for ways to cultivate a deep sense of humility. We think about how our life began at conception, just a moment when sperm and egg come together. We try to think deeply on this. At one time I was no more than microscopic cells.

Arrogance of believing yourself to be important or believing your species is better than others, both of these interfere with our understanding of life’s interconnectedness. In this way, both traditions advocate stepping outside the self. In Mussar, cultivating humility takes the focus away from the puffed-up ego. In Buddhism, it is questioning the reality of the self at all. Both say that something vast and expansive exists. “All around us is something amazing,” my Buddhism teacher said recently. “Every millimeter of the universe holds the knowledge of creation. We need to let go of the idea of me as separate.”

I spent this past Saturday at an all-day meditation retreat, which mostly consisted of sitting and walking meditation. At one point in the morning, I looked out the window and saw a light yellow rose in a garden. It stood out from the other roses, kind of glowing. I noticed its stem, rooted in the ground. It was raining. The rose was still. I thought about how that rose wasn’t going to move from that spot all day. How it would be there, just like that even after we all left and the sky grew dark. The rest of the day as I worked to maintain mindfulness, eventually feeling bored and restless by the end of the afternoon, I kept sneaking looks out at that rose. Still there. At one point I noticed that it had dropped a petal on the ground. I wished I’d seen it.

Stepping Up

Parenting two small children can be a most harrowing ordeal. It can also be the funniest face. Sometimes it is the softest touch. Often it is the loudest shriek. Occasionally it is the smelliest mess. And usually it ends with the most exhausting day.

Being the mother, I loom large. My hugs are potent. My approval is sought. My anger is damaging.

I asked for this job, but honestly I don’t always embrace it. I want things to be quiet and neat. I don’t want to hear small people complaining when really their life is pretty great or crying again because they banged their knee on the stool or asking me to stop what I’m doing and help them cut up a thick cardboard box so they can make a pirate ship. I just want some peace.

My reaction is to resist. Cringe when I hear them calling for me, frown when I see the mess they made of the couch pillows which are now a fort on the floor, yell when the noise gets to be too much.

Then the children are in bed and their lovely faces rest on their pillows and I am racked with guilt. I was mean about the couch pillows, I yelled at them to move it! when we were late for school, I walked away when they tried to include me in their game. I worry that I am hurting them.

In the book Everyday Holiness, it says the first leg of the spiritual journey involves the cultivation of humility. In this context, humility means “being no more of a somebody than you ought to be” or “limiting oneself to an appropriate space while leaving room for others.” It exists between arrogance and self-debasement, which are both overly preoccupied with the self. It is the first trait we are studying in my Mussar class.

I am thinking of humility as it relates to my parenting. What is the right amount of space in this context? I don’t want to be so big that I cannot allow my children to be who they are in my presence. Our Mussar group leader said maybe I need to step up to the job, which ironically I think means I need to shrink back a bit. By stepping up I will accept the reality of the situation and stop trying to impose my will on my kids.

It helps that the teachings in the Buddhist meditation class I am also taking reinforce this idea. If it’s good or bad, pleasant or terrible, show up for it. It also helps to know that even Buddhist mothers struggle with anger. In this article in Shambala Sun, Karen Connelly writes about her interactions with her toddler son.

It’s always like this. He gives me back the emotion I have just sent out to him. My reactions set the tone of the conflict to come; I am the adult after all. Drive all blames into oneself, says one version of the lojong slogan for mind-training, which isn’t a recipe for more mother-guilt but an admonishment to examine the nature of power and responsibility. I have power over my child. Yet I so easily misuse it. I do the precise opposite of that other Buddhist meditation practice, tonglen. Instead of sending out calm breath, I shoot a javelin from my mouth.

After Mussar class the other night I was surrounded by the mothers in the group. They offered me support and war stories of their years with young children. One woman said, “You never hear anyone saying, ‘Oh yeah, that was easy, raising children. A piece of cake.'” She’s right. I never do.


I remember the moment I decided I did not believe in God. It was the year after I’d graduated from college and I had been called home from abroad by my family because my grandmother was in the hospital. A non-serious condition had taken a turn for the worse and surprisingly, my family was faced with the dreaded choice of whether or not to keep her on life support. The decision was made to turn off the machines with the expectation that she would die soon after, probably before I could get home. But instead she lived for two weeks.

I stood by her bedside with others in my family as she struggled to go from life to death. I watched this soft-cheeked woman who let us kids eat all her honey cough drops and gave me pearls for my 21st birthday, plead to be set free of her body and I thought, “There is no God.” No God because this woman was kind and gentle. She kept kosher. She didn’t deserve this.

My friend who studies Buddism thinks this is a very “American” idea of God. That Americans believe life should not be hard or painful. If this is true, then when something really awful happened it shattered my idea of fundamentally how things should be. I blamed it on God.

I never really had an articulated sense of what God is. In Judaism it seems the concept of God has some agency; God wants, God commands, etc. This trips me up. It just doesn’t seem possible.

Recently I began reading Letters to a Buddhist Jew, a book of correspondence between an American Buddhist (who was born Jewish) and a rabbi. The Buddhist is trying to figure out if he can find a place for himself in Judaism and his questioning is very direct. The reading is mostly over my head. It is like listening in on a conversation between two people who are arguing points of physics. I want to understand.

Early on, the Buddhist tells the rabbi, “Although Zen Buddhism does not deny the existence of a Divine force at work in the Universe, it does not focus on a God who must be obeyed, or more importantly, believed in.”

The rabbi responds:

There cannot conceivably be anything more important than the existence of God. In the light of God’s existence literally everything takes on vastly greater proportions; not only do moral obligations, for example take on meaning in the deepest sense, but the very notion of meaning itself comes to life. In a godless Universe, does anything really matter? … This is not a matter for simply “not denying.” If one comes to the conclusion that the Universe has a conscious Creator and Master, all one’s investigations and subsequent conclusions will be radically different in the deepest way. And if one comes to the opposite conclusion, then quite frankly, for me on a personal level the discussion loses most of its flavor.

This struck me. I will not choose to believe, but I am impressed by the rabbi’s assertion that life is flat and flavorless without God. What is he talking about? I wonder if there is a problem of words. Creator and Master, these make me uncomfortable. I’m open to a new understanding of the concept.

Both traditions, Buddhism and Mussar (a form of Jewish practice), are adamant that the spiritual path is not self-help. There should be an acceptance of an ultimate truth. Sometimes I feel like a faker, but I know that in Judaism the act of questioning is welcomed and expected. What matters is what you do.

Question the doubt

"The Doubt" by Domingo Millan

There’s a voice in my head that says I can’t really do this. This whole spiritual searching thing I’m doing, who am I kidding? I’m not a wise one. Or sometimes the voice tells me that I’ll do meditation and Mussar for awhile, but then I’ll go back to my normal life. Or if I do really become a more spiritually connected person, I won’t be able to write about it well. I’m not smart enough. So probably I should just quit. I mean really, it’s embarrassing.

Mussar teachers call this voice my yetzer ha’ra, or negative impulse. In Buddhism it’s known as one of the Five Hindrances. In both traditions, there is a recognition that as a person engages in elevating their inner life or creating mindfulness, there are inner hurdles to overcome.

The Five Hindrances include desire, which is the wish to add something more to the present moment; aversion, which is the opposite, wanting to take away from the present moment; sleepiness or sloth and torpor, which is the waning of physical energy, as in maybe I’ll go to sleep instead of meditate; restlessness, which is the impulse to get up and do something (usually associated with worry); and finally my friend, doubt, see paragraph above.

In Mussar, the yetzer ha’ra is more attuned to the individual person. It appears in moments of choice that reflect the battle lines within your character. So if you’re very clear on how you will behave in a situation, let’s say, whether to give a dollar to a homeless person, your yetzer ha’ra won’t get involved. But if generosity is a struggle for you, there might be a moment of real questioning once you reach into your pocket. It’s at that moment of choice that the yetzer ha’ra will appear and tempt you to make the “wrong” decision.

It isn’t an impulse to do harm, says Alan Morinis in Everyday Holiness.

Rather, they are pointing to the inner drives that arise from our lower selves. The drives themselves are certainly not appraised as bad; in fact, they are necessary and useful for human life. But whenever you try to control or overrule those drives because of an intention of your higher nature, or when one of those drives becomes exaggerated, you will have a struggle on your hands. The yetzer ha’ra will do everything in its power to subvert your higher self and to influence you to indulge your desires.

The challenges it presents are exactly the ones you must overcome in order to grow spiritually. So in its own rude way, it is helpful.

Initiating the heart

Worlds are colliding or so it seems. Last week I stumbled upon a form of Jewish spiritual practice that I had never heard of before called Mussar. Instead of Torah study, it focuses on aspects of character such as humility, compassion, generosity, and others that we experience in everyday life. The practice teaches you to look inward, develop awareness, and cultivate positive traits. Seems palatable.

I signed up for a class at my synagogue. I’m in a group. Can’t hurt.

At the same time, my Buddhist meditation class is beginning to focus on emotions. My meditation teacher began his talk this week with this:

Most of us have tried to excuse the difficulties in our life by finger pointing and blaming others. By doing this, we remain clean. It is always someone else’s fault or it is the circumstances. Very infrequently does it feel that the cause is self-inflicted. At some point, a maturation occurs and we realize that we are doing it to ourselves. The difficulties in our life are self-contained.

In Mussar, practitioners choose thirteen traits to work on and then rotate focusing on each trait for one week. After thirteen weeks, the cycle begins again. At the end of the year, the cycle has occurred four times. The practice includes repetition of a focus phrase that reminds you to be aware of the trait and a daily journal in which you keep track of your successes and failures, although I’m sure they wouldn’t call it that.

Both practices call for daily meditation. In Buddhist meditation we are told to give “bare attention” to whatever is happening in our mind. The focus is on the present moment and giving full awareness to anything that is occurring, whether it be an itch or a pain in the body or an emotion that arises. With all of it my teacher says, relax, observe, and allow. So there is an effort to gain clarity and to recognize what is happening in our inner world. Not to judge it or try to change it, but just to honor it.

In the book Everyday Holiness, the text we are using for the class on Mussar, Alan Morinis writes that the practice is also a guide to working on the inner life.

Because this book tracks a Jewish spiritual path, it is useful to see that the Torah acknowledges this primary choice that confronts us. In the book of Deuteronomy we are told: “You shall circumcise the foreskin of your heart.” That enigmatic image occurs only one other time in the Torah, in the variant: “And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart.” I understand circumcism here to be a metaphor for spiritual initiation – removing obstacles to having an open, sensitive, initiated inner life. In the first quote we are offered the option of initiating ourselves. The second quote tells us that God will do it…Initiate yourself, or God will initiate you. The Torah gives no third option.

I don’t actually believe in God, but I do see that people often turn to religion when life gets hard. Someone they love dies or something very difficult happens. I could imagine myself wandering into synagogue looking for help during a crisis. I guess I see that as God’s way of initiating your heart. Not God, but life. I’m not superstitious. I don’t believe that if I do this work now, then life won’t come at me. I know it will. I’m just getting ready. And in the meantime, maybe I’ll stop griping at my kids.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Sage is six years old. He’s a cheery fellow who has a good time wherever he goes. This past weekend he started his second year of Sunday school, where he spends about three hours at our synagogue mostly learning about Jewish holidays and the Hebrew alphabet. He’s also learned the Shabbat blessings and a couple of key prayers.

I don’t get the sense that they talk about God a lot, although of course it comes up. He’s never asked about it. Never pressed me on what it is or whether we believe in it. He never uses the term. I think the topic floats right over his head which is mostly filled with fantasies of fishing, boating, and biking.

Fine with me. I have no idea how to talk to my children about God.

Wendy Mogel, a Jewish clinical psychologist and author of the book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, suggests that parents say something like, “Just as a candle hidden from view sheds its glow all around, we can see God in God’s reflection: in the good things people do for one another, in the miracles of nature, in our ability to change and grow.”

I don’t see why those things can’t stand for themselves.

I understand that there are mysteries about life that people want explained. There is an intangible connection between human beings. Kindness, helpfulness, concern, these all strengthen that connection and that is good. Well, it feels good at least. But I don’t need to call that God. Maybe someday I will.

As for nature, it takes me two seconds to think of the “miracles” of Hurricane Katrina or the earthquake in Haiti last January. Nature can be extraordinarily beautiful in ways big and small, but its forces can also be brutal and cruel. I am on this planet in awe of how we all got here, but however it happened it’s not warm and fuzzy.

Our ability to change and grow. This one holds some appeal for me. That is the nature of life, that it changes. It is impermanent, as the Buddha said.

One thing I do know is that unless I make some sense of this religion, the best I can hope for is that my kids will feel the same vague connection to Judaism that I do, based on enough time spent in Hebrew school and the enjoyment of holidays celebrated with our family. Then when they grow up, it will up to them to decide whether it matters. I fear it is not enough.

Gratitude in a hut

Usually once Yom Kippur ends, me and most of the Jews I know pack it in as far as synagogue is concerned. But since I’m paying attention, tonight my family is going back for Sukkot, the holiday in which observant Jews build impermanent shelters outdoors to eat their meals in for a week. Some also sleep out there.

The holiday celebrates the end of the growing season and the harvest. The huts recall the structures the ancient Israelites built near their ripened crops during harvest time as well as the impermanent homes they used as they traveled through the desert for 40 years. (More on that at Passover time.)

These structures are actually pretty cool. They are made out of natural materials – that which has grown, but is no longer attached to the earth – and the roof is meant to provide shade from the sun, but allow light from the stars in at night.

In New York City this past week, there was a display in Union Square of Sukkah City, the results of an international design competition to reimagine the sukkah. Here’s a slide show to see photos. Beautiful structures. The entire display is down by now, but the Center for Architecture in NY is having an exhibit from now until October 30.

Everyone loves a harvest festival so it’s not hard to get with this holiday. But true to my search for meaning in this religion, I looked up the symbolic significance of the sukkah. I found this sermon from Rabbi Stuart W. Gershon, from Temple Sinai in Summit, N.J., near my hometown.

So what does God want us to think about on Sukkot? On Sukkot, God wants us to count all our blessings and to grow in our capacity for appreciation and gratitude. Why? Because it is our human nature to take our most important blessings for granted. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Humankind will not perish for want of information, but only for want of appreciation.” Robert Louis Stevenson once said, “[the person] who has forgotten to be thankful has fallen asleep in the midst of life.” Poet Marge Piercy writes, “…the discipline of blessings is to taste each moment, the bitter, the sour, the sweet and the salty, and be glad for what does not hurt.”

I don’t believe that there is a God that wants me to think about anything, but I like the idea of remembering to have gratitude.

Last week my family invited friends over for dinner on Friday night and I suggested we recognize Shabbat by lighting the candles and saying the blessings over the wine and bread. This family is not Jewish so I tried to explain what the blessings mean. It was hard not to use the word God. Later I thought about how I could articulate those blessings in a way that felt true to me.

I could say that I am grateful for the light of life within me and the people I love. I am grateful for healthy fruits and vegetables we have to eat. And I am grateful for the beautiful bread on our table. I could say those things and mean them.

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