Will you still need me?

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“Will you still need me?” is an iconic, reverberating and absolutely not rhetorical question posed by the Beatle’s Paul McCartney in a song entitled “When I’m 64” to honor his father when he celebrated his 64th birthday. I recently turned 64 and I cannot stop thinking about how throughout the world we are responding to Sir Paul’s question, “No we do not need you, and by the way, we will not feed you either. Feed yourself or we will pay for someone else to feed you.”

Approximately 80% of the more than 350,000 people who have died in 2020 from COVID-19 in the United States are over the age of 64. One does not need 20/20 vision to see through the thinly veiled truth that we are failing to care for the elderly among us.

The longevity revolution has changed the landscape of human society. “How old is the oldest person you know?” is a question I have posed to classes of high school students over the last 40 years. During that period the responses have grown from septuagenarians to centenarians. The extraordinary development is a mixed blessing. We are living longer, but are we living better? We can celebrate scientific advances in medicine that have contributed to keeping people alive who would have died in generations past, and at the same time we can question whether our social ethics have kept pace with scientific progress. Our bodies are living longer, but what about our souls?

“Will you still need me?” is a theological question because theology is personal, intrapersonal. As Rabbi Laura Geller wrote: “All theology is autobiography.” [1] “Will you still need me?” is a theological question because theology is relational, interpersonal. God began the conversation by asking אייכה, “where are you?” to the first human.[2] “Where are you?” is a question of location and vocation. Where are you now physically, emotionally, spiritually, existentially? Where are you in relation to where you are headed? Where are you in relation to me? Ever since Adam we each respond to these questions with our words and with our actions.

When we invoke God’s blessing for healing, the words רפואת הנפש, healing of the soul, precede רפואת הגוף, healing of the body. Perhaps it is an incidental literary device, but I choose to believe that we can learn from the scope and sequence of this prayerful healing curriculum. We forget our souls at our peril. The pathology report may describe the cause of a person’s death differently, but “a broken heart,” “despair,” and “existential loneliness” are all lethal. Mental health is health, and it is long overdue for us to accord mental well-being the same status that we ascribe to physical well-being. COVID-19 is not only a disease of the body. COVID-19 has killed human spirits as well, and in particular the spirits of the elderly who languish without human contact and suffer from despair and depression.

Are old people whole people? We have no idea how to relate to our elders. Although every statistic is subject to interpretation, of the more than 120,000 victims of COVID-19 in the United States 40% lived or worked in eldercare facilities, better known as nursing homes and assisted living for seniors. “More than any other institution in America, nursing homes have come to symbolize the deadly destruction of the coronavirus crisis.” [3] At least 54,000 residents and workers have died from the coronavirus at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities for older adults in the United States, according to a New York Times database. As of June 26, [2020] the virus has infected more than 282,000 people at some 12,000 facilities.”[4] In this respect, America is not an outlier, as a study by researchers at the International Long Term Care Policy Network of fatalities in Austria, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Hungary, Ireland, Israel, Norway, Portugal, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom found that 40.8% of reported COVID-19 fatalities took place in nursing homes. Even if this figure is slightly inflated, and there are claims that even more than 40% lived in nursing homes and senior residential facilities, it is sobering if not scandalous to note that 0.6% of Americans live in long-term care facilities.

In the midst of an unprecedented longevity revolution, we are failing our elders throughout the world, and we were failing them before COVID-19. The pandemic is shining a laser on the plight of the elders in the wealthiest society in human history. The phrase “underlying conditions” is being used to explain, and perhaps explain away, the inordinate death rate of people 65 and older. However, the “conditions” in which our elders are living involve more than their physical well-being. They are living in a confined, concentrated environment, eating in large groups and cared for by people, ironically recognized as ‘essential workers’ and ‘heroes’ only during the pandemic. who are caring simultaneously for scores of other vulnerable elderly people. Nursing homes and assisted care facilities may be economically efficient, but the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed them as being viral incubators, petri dishes that permit diseases to spread unchecked. Although the disproportionate death of elders from COVID-19 is being treated as a medical emergency, it also needs to be understood as a social, moral and spiritual emergency. We need to reconsider how to relate to our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents so that their increasingly long lives can also be full lives animated by love.

The manner in which we relate to our elders is a reflection of our theology, of our understanding of what it means to be a human being created in the divine image. Are our elders, people who have retired, who are no longer contributing to the economy, full human beings? To whom do old lives matter and why?  When the covenant between God and the children of Israel was sealed in the Book of Deuteronomy and renewed in the Book of Joshua, the elders were prominent, if not preeminent.

You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God — your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer — to enter into the covenant of the Eternal your God, which the Eternal your God is concluding with you this day, with its sanctions. (Deuteronomy 29: 9-11)

Joshua assembled all the tribes of Israel at Shechem. He summoned Israel’s elders and commanders, magistrates and officers; and they presented themselves before God. (Joshua 24:1)

The ancient elders were honored because of the wisdom they had acquired through their life experience. In the biblical narrative, the elders of the community were valued, if not venerated. The contemporary elders, however, instead of being venerable are vulnerable. They are more of an afterthought on the periphery of our society rather than a focal point of pride and joy, a tributary rather than in the mainstream. They are subject to loneliness and isolation that lead to depression. The people paid to care for them only know them have no history with them, no shared memories of them.

The myriad accounts of people over the age of 65 who have died from COVID-19 testify to the tragedy of two pandemics – one medical and one moral, one caused by a virus and the other caused by human selfishness and neglect. We have not yet developed a vaccine for COVID-19, but it may take even longer to develop a vaccine for the ageism that discriminates against the elderly.

In a CNN op-ed, Ed Adler writes:” As the virus swept across the U.S., a city official in Antioch, California, said Covid-19 should be allowed to run its course, even if elderly and homeless people die. Ken Turnage, chairperson of the city’s planning commission, posted on Facebook that the country needed to adopt a “Herd Mentality” that “allows the sick, the old, the injured to meet its natural course in nature.”

This example is egregious, but it is not unique.

Indiana Congressman Trey Hollingsworth said, “[I]t is always the American government’s position to say, in the choice between the loss of our way of life as Americans and the loss of life of American lives, we have to always choose the latter.” Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said that he’d be willing to die to revive the American economy for the next generation, and felt other grandparents would agree. I am one grandparent who vehemently disagrees with the Lieutenant Governor and with the value system that prioritized livelihood over life, net worth over self-worth. Elders are not to be sacrificed as though they are pawns in a game of chess. The COVID-19 crisis has not created ageism, but it has caused its ugly head to reach new heights, or depths, depending on one’s perspective. There have even been suggestions that it is God’s will to thin out the elderly population, attempting to shift responsibility from humanity to divinity, claiming that it is beyond our control to care for our elders, a most cowardly abdication.

The first time I remember visiting a nursing home I was five. My mother, Dr. Amy Katzew, of blessed memory, was a podiatrist who specialized in caring for elders- geriatrics in medical-patois. I did not realize it at the time, but I was to learn a lifelong lesson that day. As we walked down the long corridor that smelled like an admixture of urine and disinfectant, we paused next to an open door. “I would like you to go into that room and say hello to the man inside. He is very nice. You will like him, and he will like you. Both of you enjoy fishing.” I recall nothing of our conversation, but I vividly remember my mother’s response when I asked her later why she wanted me to speak with that man. “You may have been the first person who is not a doctor or a nurse or a nurse’s aide to have visited that man in years.” “It is not good for a person to be alone.”[5]  Some of the most painful, gut-wrenching stories of suffering and death as well as some of the most heartwarming vignettes of empathy and compassion during the pandemic have borne witness to the timeless nature of this truth. Loneliness is an unhealthy, unethical state for a human being. The presence of aides, chaplains, paramedics, nurses, doctors and other medical personnel cannot always save lives, but they can preserve the dignity of life, which is a sacred act in and of itself.

Fifty years after she brought me on my first nursing home visit my mother was a resident at the eldercare facility where she had served as a doctor for more than three decades. The clear-minded decision to live there was hers. She wanted to live in proximity to her partner and close friends who would visit her frequently. Living with my spouse and me would have resulted in significant periods of the day when my mother would have been alone or with a caregiver. I respected her wishes and decided to speak to her daily and visit her twice a month. I learned why our Sages focused on the mitzvah to honor our father and our mother during the time when we are adults and our parents are dependent upon us. Adult children share the sacred responsibility of preserving our parents’ dignity as long as they are alive. Although we revisited the question of moving my mother in with us several times during the six years she lived in the eldercare facility, each time my mother said that she wanted to stay where she was living. Nevertheless, driving or flying back to our home my inner dialogue replayed the conversation wondering if we had made the best, most caring, most life-affirming, most love-affirming decision. More than once my mother said to me: “Most people here treat me like a patient; a few relate to me as a person.” The distinction between “patient” and “person” makes all the difference. A patient is an object to be treated, a means to an end. A person is a subject to be greeted, an end in herself.

Joel famously prophesied that the day would come when, “Your elders shall dream dreams and your youth shall see visions.”[6] Intergenerational harmony and empathy are signs of God’s presence and approbation. The old and the young foresee a shared future. They elderly not only have memories; they have hopes and dreams. Rather than waiting to die, they are daring to live. “Do not cast me away when I am old: when my strength fails, do not forsake me.”[7] This verse from the Psalms was woven into a prayer that punctuates the Yom Kippur liturgy – שמע קולינו (Hear our voice). The voices of our elders deserve to be heard every day as on the holiest of our days. “Do not cast me away when I am old” is a plaintive plea as well as an admonition from generation to generation. I was once you and one day you may very well be me. Whatever you decide to do with me, do it with me rather than to me and do it with dignity. Our 21st century treatment of the elders in our society, the richest materially in human history, borders on moral bankruptcy. COVID-19 has exposed the painful truth that we are relating to our elders as though they are expendable, apart from us rather than a part of us, Our actions suggest that old people are less than human because they do not produce anything. They are primarily dependent beings. As our parents and grandparents, our elders deserve better. Torah teaches that our future depends on how we relate to the people who have given us life and love. “Honor your father and your mother that you may long endure on the land that the Eternal your God is assigning to you.”[8] Honoring one’s parents is an exceptional mitzvah, one of only three in the Torah whose fulfillment lead to a long life.[9] Fittingly, this mitzvah is the subject of extensive rabbinic commentary.

“Rav Yehuda says that Shmuel says: They asked Rabbi Eliezer: How far must one go to fulfill the mitzva of honoring one’s father and mother? Rabbi Eliezer said to them: Go and see what one non-Jew did for his father in Ashkelon, and the name of the son was Dama ben Netina. Once the Sages wished to purchase precious stones from him for the ephod of the High Priest for six hundred thousand gold dinars’ profit, and Rav Kahana taught that it was eight hundred thousand gold dinars’ profit. And the key to the chest holding the jewels was placed under his father’s head, and he would not disturb him.

The next year the Holy One, Blessed be God, gave Dama ben Netina his reward, as a red heifer was born in his herd, and the Jews needed it. When the Sages of Israel came to him he said to them: I know, concerning you, that if I were to ask for all the money in the world you would give it to me. But I ask only that money that I lost due to the honor of my Father.

And Rabbi Ḥanina says: And if this is related about one who is not commanded by the Torah to honor his father, as Dama was a non-Jew, and nevertheless when he performs the mitzva he is given this great reward, all the more so is one rewarded who is commanded to fulfill a mitzva and performs it. As Rabbi Ḥanina says: Greater is one who is commanded to do a mitzva and performs it than one who is not commanded to do a mitzva and performs it.”[10]

Dama’s status as a non-Jew elevates and enhances the significance of honoring parents. The command to honor one’s parents transcends Jewish life; it applies universally to human beings. How we honor our parents will depend on the uniqueness of each parent-child relationship. However, in every case honoring our parents depends on factoring their dignity into every decision we make, including where and how our parents live and who cares for them. We learn from Dama that to honor one’s parents requires self-sacrifice, a willingness to forgo personal gain for the sake of caring for the physical and emotional well-being of one’s parents. The Sages claim that Jews have a special obligation, even greater than that of Dama, to honor our parents because we have been commanded to do so. In the rabbinic mind, Jews have no excuse whatsoever for failing to honor our parents. It is not only the right thing to do, it is our sacred obligation to fulfill.

As Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “What we owe the old is reverence, but all they ask for is consideration, attention, not to be discarded or forgotten. What they deserve is preference, yet we do not even grant them equality. One father finds it possible to sustain a dozen children, yet a dozen children find it impossible to sustain one father. Perhaps this is the most distressing aspect of the situation. The care for the old is regarded as an act of charity rather than as a supreme privilege. In the never dying utterance of the Ten Commandments, the God of Israel did not proclaim: Honor Me, Revere Me.” God proclaimed instead: Revere your father and your mother. There is no reverence for God without reverence for father and mother.”[11] In the almost 60 years that have passed since Rabbi Heschel taught his Torah, these words have taken on even greater significance. Then, just over a tenth of the Jewish population in the United States was over 65; now, nearly one quarter of American Jews have lived as long or longer. As a matter of our economy and our theology, the changed landscape of American Jewry requires a spiritual and ethical accounting of our relationship with our elders.

“Before a gray head you shall rise, and you shall defer to an elder and fear your God. I am the Eternal.”[12]   This verse epitomizes the biblical ideal for treatment of the elderly. The aging process leads to wisdom. Experience engenders insight, and therefore, an elderly person has earned immediate respect. However, this romantic ideal is not the sole biblical narration of old age. Its realistic counterpoint is soberly expressed in the words “Appreciate your vigor in the days of your youth, before those days of sorry come and those years arrive of which you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them.”[13]

“The Torah protects us. We don’t need to do anything,” one yeshiva student said at the time.

According to professor Kimmy Caplan, who heads Bar Ilan University’s department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry, several popular ultra-Orthodox preachers took to social media to call for people to increase their Shabbat observance during the weekend before the Passover holiday, claiming that this would “tilt the scales and beat the coronavirus.”

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many observant Jews have found themselves forced to confront the theological implications of a plague that has subverted popular assumptions regarding reward and punishment.

Ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel have seen the lion’s share of infections and deaths from COVID-19, at the same time as Jewish communities abroad have been disproportionately affected, with high infection rates in Hasidic neighborhoods from New York to London.

As the virus began to spread in Israel, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, the foremost leader of Lithuanian ultra-Orthodoxy, announced through a spokesman that study halls should remain open, as “canceling Torah study is more dangerous than coronavirus.”

Taking their cue from Kanievsky, some members of the community at first assumed that not only did they not have to take drastic steps to staunch the spread of the virus, but that they were essentially immune.

But as the death toll mounted and their community was not spared, some ultra-Orthodox Jews began

to question what was happening.

On Sunday, reflecting the zeitgeist in his community, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri called on Israel’s ultra-Orthodox to take stock of their actions in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We need to do very deep soul-searching,” the ultra-Orthodox politician said, asserting that God was “telling us something.”

Several days earlier, Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, one of the leaders of the Lithuanian branch of non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodoxy, told followers that their community was bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic because secular Jews weren’t as prone to divine retribution as the religious, whose sins are judged more harshly by God.

The higher infection rates in the communities have largely been ascribed to overcrowded conditions in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, their intensely communal nature and the initial refusal of rabbis, including Edelstein, to endorse social distancing measures and the shutting of synagogues and other religious institutions.

This attitude began to change for many of the ultra-Orthodox as the virus burned its way through their communities, with many eventually acknowledging that a lack of preparedness and resistance to taking early preventative measures played a large part in the unfolding tragedy. (Some members of the community have continued to flout regulations, with hundreds of people crowding together in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak to celebrate the Lag B’Omer holiday Monday evening, hundreds arrested on Tuesday in clashes at Mount Meron in the Galilee, and large crowds at another illegal gathering Tuesday in Jerusalem.)

Divine punishment?

“Wanting to know why is the most important and frustrating question people ask,” said Dr. Jeffrey Woolf, a historian of Medieval and Renaissance Jewry and associate professor of Talmud at BTar Ilan University.

An Orthodox rabbi himself, Woolf explained that discussions of divine justice and theodicy — or why God permits evil — in Judaism go “all the way back” to the biblical story of Job. “People don’t like being helpless. And if something is happening and you don’t know why, you feel totally helpless.”

Statements like Edelstein’s, asserting that God is punishing the sins of the most fervent believers more severely, are fully in consonance with the “Haredi ethos that the Jewish world and universe depend on us studying Torah and doing mitzvot,” Woolf said.

Jewish popular theology “takes divine providence extremely seriously,” agreed Yoel Finkelman, curator of the National Library’s Judaica Collection. “Everything happens for a reason.

“There is a very longstanding tradition when bad things happen to look for opportunities for repentance and soul searching,” he said, and currently many in the ultra-Orthodox community are advocating for renewed commitment regarding various aspects of observance.

While for many this approach doesn’t necessarily mean blaming religious laxity for the pandemic, others have seen a more direct relationship between the two.

Blaming women

Among the ultra-Orthodox, wall posters known in Yiddish as pashkevilim, which urge the community to undertake various courses of action, are an important method of communication. The National Library’s ephemera project, which has been gathering material related to the pandemic, has collected several blaming the pandemic on women.

“Horrifying discovery: Corona epidemic = lack of modesty,” one such poster seen in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem announced, using gematria, or Jewish numerology, which ascribes a numerical value to letters and words and draws significance from words or expressions with equal values.

According to the poster, both “corona epidemic” and “lack of modesty” have a numerical value of 900, indicating a conceptual link.

Others have advanced different punitive reasons for the pandemic. Signs plastered in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Israel have linked COVID-19 to gossip and slander, using the tagline “Don’t speak [badly of others], don’t get infected.”

Some have have taken a different tack, attempting to divine what God is trying to teach them through the pandemic. Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, head of the Ateret Yerushalayim yeshiva in Jerusalem and a prominent figure in the national religious camp, is one of them.

Despite asserting in multiple articles that “we don’t know what causes coronavirus” and that even the biblical prophets couldn’t give a reason for everything that happens, he has also posited that COVID-19 could help create peace between married couples by forcing everyone to stay home.

In one article, Aviner mused that the disease could be a divine response to “moral relativism or postmodernism,” which he said has caused people to value their own judgment above that of God.

Both the themes of divine punishment and divine lessons could be seen in a recent article in The Jewish Press in which several rabbis were asked “What Is Hashem [God] Teaching Us With The Coronavirus.”

Rabbi Lazer Brody, a popular lecturer and author belonging to the Breslov Hasidic sect, asserted that God was curing people of their materialism by curtailing vacations and ending the “public desecrations of Shabbat.”

Is it too much to consider that as our world continues to sink ever lower in our commitment to virtue that God responded with a virus that has forced millions into a ‘timeout’ of quarantine and seclusion?” asked Rabbi Benjamin Blech, a professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University, the flagship institution of American Modern Orthodoxy, in an article on the website Aish.

Noting that the Ten Commandments constitute “the biblical source of the most basic system of ethical and moral behavior,” Blech pointed out that “in the original Hebrew, the language in which the commandments were inscribed by God on the two tablets, there are exactly 620 letters.”

“620 is the gematria, the numerical value, of an important Hebrew word, keter, which means crown,” he continued, musing that the pandemic could be “a divine message reminding us that we have been given our lives to invest them with meaning and virtue as defined by God’s 10 Commandments.”

What if God is not punishing us? What if human actions have created the context for COVID-19, if the growing inequities in human society have contributed to the pandemics we are now facing? God has granted us free will and we are exercising that free will in a manner that systemically discriminates against the weak, people who are dependent, the very young and the very old, the very poor, the most uneducated, the most undernourished, – without justice.


Notes

[1] Rabbi Laura Geller. “All Theology is Autobiography: Reflections on Forty Years in the Rabbinate”. eJewishPhilanthropy, January 4, 2017.

[2] Genesis 3:9

[3] “They Just Dumped Him Like Trash’: Nursing Homes Evict Vulnerable Residents.” By Jessica Silver-Greenberg and Amy Julia Harris. NY Times, June 21, 2020.

 

[4] NY Times. June 27, 2020.

[5] Genesis [2:18]

[6] Joel 3:1

[7] Psalms 71:9

[8] Exodus [20:12]

[9] In addition to the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents, sending the mother bird away before taking the eggs from the nest (Dt.22:6-7) and having honest weights and measures (Dt.[25:15]) lead to a long life.

[10] Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 31a

[11] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Insecurity of Freedom. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1967, p.70. (“To Grow in Wisdom”, White House Conference on Aging, January 9, 1961).

[12] Leviticus [19:32]. See Teaching Mitzvot. Barbara Binder Kadden, Behrman House, 2003, p.163ff.

[13] Ecclesiastes 12: 1-3

About Rabbi Jan Katzew
Rabbi Jan Katzew serves as an associate professor of Education and Jewish Thought and Director of Service Learning at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati, Ohio.

1 Comment

  1. Laurie Dinerstein Kurs January 4, 2021 at 5:03 pm

    I have an alternate idea from most every statement presented here. In my experience of being the County Jewish chaplain in over 20 facilities for over 25 years, I have to differ.
    As opposed to being “discarded”, many seniors CHOOSE (as did the writer’s mom) to “sign up” and move into a facility. Many reasons…with all due respect to what the family promises they can and will do to help the parent stay in their home – reality sets in. Grandkids evening
    performance at school….who stays with grandmom? Family wants to go on family outing to amusement park – who stays with granddad? Kids want friends over…small apartment – gramma needs her sleep, too late for her…..Kids need to practice drums, guitar – apartment .too small to to “hide” loud music. Who changes grandparent when need arises?? The assumption that everyone has a roomy house….and grandparent will have their own room…ignore the multitude of people who reside in small apartments, and even small houses. When gramma is in her nightgown, in the middle of the livingroom, it impedes the children’s freedom to play, chase, sing. an have friends over. When all they hear is “SHHH, grampa is resting”…it kinda dampens the spirit. If grampa get sick or falls..WHO will be present at that moment .who can lift 250 lb. grampa without hurting him further?; KIds??
    Many seniors I have encountered CHOSE to move into a facility. AS with most decisions… there is most always pros and cons. If you pick wisely…one that meets your needs it can be as close to good as is possible under the situation. IF one “moves in’ while they are still basically fine .- many places offer Independent living. They leave you alone UNLESS you need them. Apartments often come with small kitchenettes. If/when you need more help….there is Assisted living. If your health deteriorates, as is possible…the next step is the nursing home. . There are facilities that house all three “steps”..on the same campus – .so one never has to start looking when they are least able. .
    To stay at home with family sounds SOOO loving and kind…and for a select few – it is. Keep in mind – not every in-law is beloved, neither is every parent…old hurts thrive in suffocating ways. Does not help in family harmony.
    To be left for hours with an aide….assuming the aide is not delayed and screws up your day…get you late to work or a kid s game. Suppose the aide and the parent get along…and now must spend hour after hour together. Sort of like their own pandemic quarantine. just the two of them – we now know how that works out…..sadness, depression, angst, frayed nerves…. etc. What do they do to fill each day…….quarantined?????/

    In a facility there are daily activities, speakers, exercises, meet people your age, make acquaintances and friends, play games – have live entertainment, go on trips, and to boot – housekeeping, laundry,and meals. If needed – plumbers, electricians, handipeople.on site. Best of all, Nurses and possibly Dr’s ON SITE!!

    Are these facilities equivalent to a five star hotel… no. BUT, maybe a Day’s Inn.
    Visit when you want – but never on a schedule. keep tabs on the service – quality and attentiveness.

    It is NOT disrespectful, nor is one avoiding the obligation of due kavod av v aim..by making every member of the family comfortable.

    I am in my 70’s…and I will be making a reservation in the near future! Sign me up!!

    . Laurie Dinersteih – Kurs ..

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