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The Miketz Mystery

Rav David Silverberg


I.      "Annus, Al Pi Ha-Dibbur"


     On the surface, virtually nothing that occurs in Parashat Miketz makes sense.  We present here a list of some of the more common questions asked when studying this parasha.  As you will see, hardly a few verses go by without another mystery arising:

1)     Why is Pharaoh so traumatized by his dreams of the cows and sheaves of grain (41:8)?  Had he never before experienced strange dreams?

2)     Why does Yosef instruct Pharaoh to appoint officials to oversee grain storage during the years of plenty (41:33-36)?  Wasn't he summoned for the sole purpose of interpreting the dreams?

3)     On what basis does Pharaoh conclude that "since God has made all this known to you, there is none so discerning and wise as you" (41:39)?  For that matter, why does Yosef's interpretation "please Pharaoh and all his courtiers" (41:37)?  How do they know he interpreted the dream correctly?

4)     More strikingly, how does Pharaoh so rashly decide to appoint Yosef second-in-command over the entire country (41:40-44)?  How could a foreigner, sold in Egypt as a slave and charged with attempting to rape his master's wife, a prominent noblewoman, so suddenly be offered the second-highest rank in the most powerful nation of the ancient world?

5)     Why does Yosef declare upon the birth of his first child, Menashe, "God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home" (41:51)?  Does he feel proud at having forgotten his grieving father?

6)     Upon assuming such a powerful post, why does Yosef not bother to contact his father in Canaan and inform him that he is alive and well?  Why does he wait until after his brothers arrive to bring Yaakov to Egypt?

7)     Why does Yosef accuse his brothers of spying and insist that they bring Binyamin to Egypt (beginning of chapter 42)?

8)     Why does Yosef add further torment, by returning their money to their sacks, such that they would fear being framed (42:25)?

9)     Why does he plant his silver goblet in Binyamin's bag and insist on keeping him as a slave?

10) A question concerning next week's parasha: why does Yosef decide to reveal his identity when he did?


     Our Sages and commentators suggest answers to all these questions, some more compelling than others.  It is noteworthy that the majority of these questions share a common quality: the text leaves hardly any clues for us to work with.  The commentators must resort to conjecture, utilizing their common sense, creativity and intuition.  Thankfully, our tradition has produced many brilliant minds capable of rising to this formidable challenge.  But the cumulative effect of these ten questions (and many, many others) gives rise to perhaps a more pressing, eleventh difficulty: why does the Torah present this story with such ambiguity?  Why does it omit the underlying rationale behind the conduct of all those involved in this story, primarily Pharaoh and Yosef?  Why are these two characters - as well as Yaakov and Reuven, for that matter - portrayed as acting so irrationally and haphazardly?


     This final question is perhaps the simplest to resolve.  In the Haggada on Pesach we cite Chazal's comment that Yaakov and his family descended to Egypt "annus, al pi ha-Dibbur" - against their will, in accordance with God's command.  This claim seems to run counter to the Torah's description of Yaakov's resettlement, which we read in next week's parasha, Parashat Vayigash.  Upon hearing that Yosef is alive in Egypt, Yaakov immediately packs his bags and goes to Egypt (45:28-46:7).  True, he makes a stop in Be'er Sheva to offer sacrifices, which many commentators understand as a formal request of permission to go to Egypt.  Clearly, however, Yaakov was not forced to settle in Egypt.  (The Netziv, in his commentary, Ha'amek Davar, does, in fact, claim that Yaakov had no intention of moving to Egypt at that point until God instructed him to do so.  This is not, however, the generally accepted approach.)  Our Sages likely refer here to the unlikely chain of events that led to the family's relocation in Egypt.  They articulate this notion perhaps most eloquently in a celebrated Midrashic passage relevant to Parashat Vayeshev, though certainly applicable to our parasha, as well:


"The brothers were occupied with the [aftermath of] the sale of Yosef, Yosef was occupied with his sackcloth and fasting, Reuven was occupied with his sackcloth and fasting, Yaakov was occupied with his sackcloth and fasting, Yehuda was occupied with marriage, and the Almighty was occupied with creating the light of the Messianic King" (Bereishit Rabba, 85:1). 


The thinly-veiled Hand of God navigates the vessel of humanity through the ocean of history, while the individual focuses his attention on his own, private affairs.  The unusual circumstances that unfold in these parshiyot lead to Yaakov's migration to Egypt, such that he is forced to do so.


     To accentuate this point, the Torah depicts even human activity as steered by a higher force, rather than common sense and reason.  Did Pharaoh entrust his monarchy to a stranger and convicted criminal out of sheer foolishness?  It is hard to believe that the king of such a successful empire could act so impulsively.  Was Yosef cruel and seeking vengeance when he tormented his brothers?  Unquestionably not; such conduct is entirely inconsistent with our tradition's image of "Yosef Ha-tzadik" as well as with his own reconciliatory remarks to his brothers (45:5-8; 50:19-20).  Yet, regardless of how we explain and rationalize this conduct, the simple reading of the verses implies that these two characters acted entirely unreasonably.  While this is clearly not the case, the text's portrayal underscores the Hand of God that forcibly grabbed Yaakov's family and transferred them to Egypt, fulfilling His decree that Avraham's descendants will suffer bondage and oppression in a foreign land (Bereishit 15:13).


     In both content and language, the story of Yosef in Egypt bears remarkable resemblance to another Biblical narrative: Megilat Ester.  In his introduction to the Da'at Mikra commentary on the Megila, Gavriel Chayim Cohen lists several parallels between the two accounts.  In both instances, a Ben Yisrael rises to the position of viceroy in a foreign government: Yosef in Egypt, and Mordekhai in Persia.  Moreover, both Yosef and Mordekhai save their brethren from calamity - famine and execution, respectively.  However, this contextual resemblance is of little value unless we can show that the author of Megilat Ester intentionally sought to draw an association between the two stories.  Otherwise, the parallel events may be viewed as mere coincidence.  Sure enough, sufficient evidence exists to an intentional, textual correspondence between the story of Yosef and the Megila.  In both contexts we find the appointment of "pekidim" (government officials), in Egypt to oversee the storage of grain (41:34), and in Persia to find suitable candidates for queen (Ester 2:3).  Both sets of "pekidim" were charged with the responsibility of "ve-yikbetzu," assembling, grain and maidens (Bereishit 41:35; Ester 2:3).  Yosef's suggestion of a food storage campaign "found favor in Pharaoh's eyes" (41:37), just as the idea that Achashverosh conduct a survey of young women to select a wife "found favor in the king's eyes" (Ester 2:4).  In her attempt to seduce Yosef, Potifar's wife spoke with him "yom yom" (day in, and day out), and the royal courtiers questioned Mordekhai "yom va-yom" as to his refusal to bow before Haman (Ester 3:4).  When Yaakov finally allows Binyamin to go to Egypt with his brothers, he laments, "As for me - if I am to be bereaved, I shall be bereaved" (43:14), reminiscent of Ester's mournful cry, "As for me - if I am to perish, I shall perish" (Ester 4:16).  And so on.  (Further parallels: Bereishit 50:3 & Ester 2:12; Bereishit 44:34 & Ester 8:6; Bereishit 41:42-43 & Ester 6:9, 8:2.)


     Megilat Ester tells the story of divine providence working behind the curtain of human endeavor, the unfolding of God's master plan through the actions of men propelled solely by personal interests and ambition, as well as through coincidental circumstance.  In searching for a model for such a saga in Chumash, Mordekhai and Ester landed upon the story of Yosef in Egypt.  What on the surface appears as a sequence of improbable coincidence and erratic human conduct, in truth emerges as an eternal testament to God's power over history and world events.


II.   Understanding Pharaoh


     The key to uncovering Pharaoh's rationale may lie specifically in a question we raised concerning Yosef's conduct: why he assumes for himself the right to advise the king, rather than simply interpret his dream.  We may perhaps deduce that a self-understood interrelationship existed between the dream's meaning and its practical ramifications.  As we see several times throughout this saga, dreams at that time bore a certain prophetic quality.  It follows, then, that an individual - all the more so the king of a large empire - would experience this "prophecy" only if it proved useful and directly consequential.  Yosef thus correctly presumes that the request that he decipher Pharaoh's dreams included identifying its practical ramifications.


     This also helps explain why Pharaoh awoke so shaken.  As a powerful king, he realized that quasi-prophecies such as these could involve critical, national concerns.  He immediately convenes his "magicians" and "wise men" (41:8) to learn what practical measures his dream calls upon him to undertake.  To his dismay and frustration, "no one could interpret them for Pharaoh."  Perhaps his sorcerers, whose involvement in the field kept them somewhat aloof from hands-on governmental and economic affairs, could not arrive at an interpretation with any practical application.  Pharaoh is naturally dissatisfied until he hears Yosef's suggestion.  His interpretation combined the spiritual insight necessary to decipher dreams with the practical know-how necessary to apply them.  Indeed, Rabbi Avraham Sofer (Hungary, 19th century, author of "Ketav Sofer") suggests that this rare combination impressed Pharaoh and prompted him to name Yosef his viceroy.  The king exclaims, "Could we find another like him, a man in whom is the spirit of God?" (41:38).  Rabbi Sofer explains that Pharaoh here points to the unusual blend of "ish" (literally, "man"), worldliness and pragmatism, with spiritual intuition.  He does not hesitate, then, to place his country under Yosef's charge.


III.            Understanding Yosef: the Ramban's Approach

     The bulk of the commentators' work on this parasha, however, focuses on Yosef's treatment of his brothers upon their arrival in Egypt.  As opposed to Pharaoh's conduct, here there is far more at stake.  Unlike the Egyptian monarch, Yosef is seen as a patriarchal figure and religious model for us to follow.  How may we understand his harsh and hostile attitude towards his brothers and even insensitivity towards his father?


     As mentioned, the Torah gives us few clues with which to work.  Regarding Yosef's response to his brothers' arrival, we find two primary clues which lead us, at first glance, in two different directions.  These two hints surround the narrative of his treatment (or mistreatment) of his brothers, with one surfacing immediately at the initial encounter, and the other as Yosef reveals his identity.  The verses describe the brothers' initial meeting with Yosef in Egypt as follows:


"Yosef recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him.  Yosef remembered the dreams that he had dreamt about them, and he said to them, 'You are spies… '" (42:8-9). 


The verses thus imply that Yosef's childhood dreams of superiority over his brothers (37:5-9) prompted his accusations against them.  We encounter the second clue towards the beginning of next week's reading, Parashat Vayigash, when Yosef finally discloses his true identity (45:1).  Presumably, whatever he had hoped to achieve through his disguise and taunting campaign of allegations and framing has been accomplished.  If so, then we should perhaps point to the event just prior to his revelation as the ultimate goal of Yosef's tactics.  That event is Yehuda's impassioned plea to stay in Egypt in Binyamin's place.  Although, as Yehuda acknowledges, Binyamin was found guilty, the viceroy should have compassion for the boy's aged and distressed father and allow Yehuda to remain in his place.  Somehow, this appeal on the part of Yosef's brother marked the attainment of his goal, allowing for him to now reveal his identity.


     Indeed, these two indications have led to two different approaches to understanding Yosef's behavior.  Building on the first of these clues, the Ramban (42:9), among others, claims that Yosef felt required to ensure the fulfillment of his prophetic dreams.  Seeing that only ten of his brothers prostrated themselves before him, whereas his dreams foresaw that all eleven brothers, as well as Yaakov, would submit to his authority, Yosef contrived a plan by which Binyamin must come to Egypt and bow before him.  Thus, upon remembering his dreams, Yosef accuses his brothers of spying as a pretext for his insistence that Binyamin join them in Egypt.  As for Yosef's having planted his goblet in Binyamin's bag in order to sentence him to slavery, the Ramban suggests that Yosef fears for his  brother's life.  Yosef was concerned that the hatred his brothers had directed towards him has now shifted onto his younger brother.  He thus fears allowing the brothers to take Binyamin with them, until he heard of Yehuda's having promised Yaakov to return Binyamin safely from Egypt.


     Several later writers sharply criticize the Ramban's approach.  Perhaps most notably, Rabbi Yitzchak Arama, in his classic work, Akeidat Yitzchak, argues, "Regarding dreams - leave it to Him who sends them to make them come true.  It seems infinitely foolish for a man to strive to fulfill his dreams which are matters beyond his control."  In his view, a dreamer has no right to work towards the fulfillment of his dreams at the expense of others.  God alone takes responsibility for ensuring the proper execution of the prophecies He transmits.  What right does Yosef have to oppress and manipulate his brothers and father for the sake of his teenage dreams?


     Our earlier discussion of the nature of dreams in Biblical times may perhaps help us in defending the Ramban's position.  Dreams carried a prophetic quality that necessarily called for translation into practical terms.  Just as Pharaoh understood his dreams as conveying a pragmatic, down-to-earth message, so did Yosef - and his brothers - interpret his dreams as a call to action.  His prophecy not only predicted his superiority over his brothers, but required him to bring about their submission to his authority.


IV.            Understanding Yosef: the Abarbanel's Approach


     Others, however, focus their attention on the timing of Yosef's ultimate disclosure of his identity.  The Abarbanel, among others, claims that through this grueling process, Yosef successfully led his brothers to full repentance for their crime.  The Rambam, in his presentation of the laws of repentance (2:1), describes "complete repentance" ("teshuva gemura") as follows:


"He who was confronted by the identical thing regarding which he transgressed and it lies within his power to commit the transgression but he nevertheless abstains and does not succumb out of repentance… " 


One achieves full repentance by facing the same situation which led him to sin initially and refraining.  Yosef thus places his brothers in a situation whereby they must choose between themselves and their younger brother, their father's favorite.  By willing to sacrifice on his behalf, they will have thus fully corrected their sin of mistreating their father's favorite twenty-three years earlier.  This is why Yosef reveals his identity after hearing Yehuda's plea that Yosef allow him to remain in Egypt as a slave rather than Binyamin.  Yehuda, the mastermind of Yosef's sale, now prepares to make the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of Binyamin, reflecting the brothers' "complete repentance."


     This approach has a certain appeal in that it provides a single basis of justification for all of Yosef's peculiar and seemingly harsh and manipulative treatment of his brothers.  He secretly returns their money to frighten them, thus evoking their response, "What is this that God has done to us?" (42:28).  Moreover, it explains Yosef's surprising references to God in speaking to his brothers.  After imprisoning them for three days, Yosef releases ten of the eleven brothers and declares, "Do this and you shall live, for I am a God-fearing man" (42:18).  When they return to Egypt with Binyamin, Yosef's house steward allays their fears about the returned money:


"All is well with you, do not be afraid: your God, the God of your father, put a treasure in your bags for you… " (43:23). 


Several verses later, Yosef arrives and says to Binyamin, "May God be gracious to you, my boy" (43:29).  References to the one God by the viceroy of a pagan empire could not possibly be explained by the brothers as anything but a near revelation by the Almighty Himself.  Yosef specifically acted in a manner so peculiar that the brothers could interpret it only as a direct punishment by God.  For the same reason, he seats them in age order, much to the brothers' astonishment (43:33).  Yosef saw to it that the brothers would immediately attribute their experiences to the Hand of God.  Indeed, as Binyamin is caught "red-handed" with the silver goblet, Yehuda wails, "God has uncovered the crime of your servants" (44:16).  Rashi explains this "crime" as a reference to the sale of Yosef.  The brothers know full well that Binyamin didn't steal anything; God has rather brought upon them another calamity as retribution for their mistreatment of Binyamin's brother.


     On the other hand, the Abarbanel's explanation raises the serious ideological problem of the extent of one's responsibility towards the spiritual welfare of others.  Undoubtedly, the Torah holds every Jew accountable, at one level or another, for the conduct of others: "Reprove your kinsman and thereby you shall not incur guilt because of him" (Vayikra 19:17).  On the other hand, it is Yosef himself who, ironically enough, delineates the critical boundaries of this obligation.  Towards the end of Sefer Bereishit, Yosef's brothers fear a harsh reprisal on his part to avenge their mistreatment of him.  He reassures them, "Have no fear, for am I in God's place?"  Although one must direct others along the path of repentance, he may not "play God" and decide how to punish a sinner.  Judging, other than in the manner prescribed by the Torah's judicial laws, lies strictly in God's domain.  How, then, can Yosef inflict such pain on his brothers - not to mention on his father! - even if he intends for their spiritual well being?


     Before proceeding further, we should note another grounds for disputing the Abarbanel's theory: why does the Torah emphasize that Yosef remembered his childhood dreams upon seeing his brothers?  Of what relevance are his dreams to his plan to steer his brothers towards full repentance?


V.   Understanding Yosef: Combining the Ramban & the Abarbanel


     We may perhaps suggest a third approach, one which merges the two explanations we have seen thus far.  As the Ramban claims, Yosef felt obligated to bring his dreams/prophecies to fruition.  However, the fulfillment of those dreams required his brothers' repentance.  Yosef envisioned his leadership over a united family, rather than a schism and conflict within the family.  In fact, the Midrash describes Reuven's optimism as a result of Yosef's dreams.  Fearing expulsion from Yaakov's family due to his sin with Bilha (see 35:22), Reuven felt encouraged by Yosef's dream of his eleven brothers, which included Reuven.  The family of which Yosef dreamt included everyone, albeit under his leadership.  After his having been sold by his brothers, Yosef reaches the obvious conclusion that they do not consider him part of Yaakov's family; they sought to permanently exclude him from the blessing of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov.  For Yosef's dreams to reach fulfillment, this attitude must change.  They must clearly acknowledge their misjudgment and accept Yosef as their brother once again; only then can Yosef actualize his prophetic vision of eleven brothers united and under his charge.

     Already during their initial visit to Egypt, it appears as though the brothers feel remorse for their treatment of Yosef: "They said to one another, 'Alas, we are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us'" (42:21).  A close reading of this verse, however, reveals that the brothers do not regret their decision to expel Yosef.  They express remorse merely for their insensitivity to his cries: perhaps they could have devised a plan which would not have caused him such pain?  They attribute their suffering to their brutality towards Yosef, not for their decision to send him into exile.  This understanding is reinforced by the very next verse: "Reuven responded, 'Did I not tell you, 'Do no wrong to the boy?'  But you paid no heed, and now comes the reckoning for his blood."  The Malbim notes that the term, "va-ya'an" ("replied") indicates a difference of opinion.  Reuven takes strong issue with the brothers' conclusion, insisting that they should never have harmed Yosef to begin with.  They are held accountable not only for his suffering, but for their entire approach towards their brother. 


     Upon hearing his brothers' deliberation, Yosef turns away to cry (42:24).  He realizes that with the exception of Reuven (who, you will recall, had vested interest in the fulfillment of Yosef's dreams), the brothers have adhered to their conviction that Yosef must be driven from the family.  He thus continues with his plan to lead them to full repentance.  Only then, when the entire family has come together, will his dreams see fulfillment.


VI.            Understanding Yosef: Rav Yoel Bin-Nun's Approach


     In conclusion, we will briefly present a final, revolutionary theory posited by a contemporary writer, Rav Yoel Bin-Nun (currently Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Kibbutz Ha-dati) in explaining Yosef's conduct.  Recall that the Ramban had wondered why Yosef never contacted his father to inform him of his well being.  Rav Bin-Nun responds by reversing the question: why did Yaakov make no attempt at locating his son?  While for us readers the answer is obvious - Yosef's bloodstained garment indicated to Yaakov that he had died, this question gnawed at Yosef's mind throughout his years in Egypt.  He knew nothing of the bloodstained cloak and was thus left wondering as to what Yaakov thought.  Why hadn’t Yaakov, a prominent, well-connected personality, tracked down Yosef's whereabouts?  Egypt kept detailed records of its import and export of slaves; surely Yaakov could have determined the fate of his beloved son?  Yosef reaches the painful conclusion that Yaakov no longer considers Yosef part of his family; he is excluded from God's covenant to Avraham.  Rav Bin-Nun goes so far as to speculate that Yosef figured that Yaakov intentionally sent Yosef to his brothers so that they send him away.  Why else, Yosef thought, would Yaakov have sent him that day to his brothers?  Yosef thus concludes that he no longer has any connection with his family.  Although Yaakov favored Yosef during his first seventeen years, the brothers must have convinced him that Yosef should not earn a place within the "chosen" family.  (Recall that Yaakov sharply scolded Yosef after his second dream -  37:10.  We can imagine that this condemnation likely contributed to Yosef's sentiments at this point, as he sits in an Egyptian dungeon.)  Yosef thus decides to concentrate on building a new life in Egypt, permanently detached and dissociated from his past.


     Then Yosef's brothers arrive and bow before him.  Suddenly, his childhood memories flood his mind and ignite his imagination.  Hasn't he dreamt of this very scenario, of his brothers prostrating themselves before him?  Had he given up too soon on his family?  Maybe his dreams of ruling over his brothers are true, they are being fulfilled!  In order to find out what really happened that fateful day, Yosef needs Binyamin, the only brother not involved in the sale, to come to Egypt and stay there without his brothers.  He will tell Yosef the whole story, of what Yaakov had in mind when he sent him to the brothers. 

However, Yosef's plan never reaches completion.  As Yehuda pleads his case, he utters a single sentence that answers all of Yosef's questions.  Yehuda cites his father's explanation for his refusal to allow Binyamin to go to Egypt: "One has gone from me, and I said: Alas, he was torn by a beast!  And I have not seen him since" (44:28).  After twenty-three years, Yosef finally discovers what happened when the brothers returned home after selling him: Yaakov concluded that Yosef was torn by a beast.  Yosef has no need for the continuation of his plan; he has heard everything he needs to know.  Yaakov had been misled; he never sought to expel Yosef.  At that point, Yosef reveals his identity to his brothers. 


     Rav Bin-Nun's analysis has been the subject of considerable debate and discussion among certain circles of Tanakh study.  Some writers have strongly rejected the notion that Yosef considered the possibility of Yaakov's collusion with the brothers.  As Yaakov's favorite son, these scholars argue, Yosef undoubtedly realized that his father would never attempt to harm him or, all the more so, disown him. 


For Further Study:


I.      Rav Mordechai Sabato posited an interesting approach to Pharaoh's favorable response to Yosef's interpretation and rejection of the courtiers' suggestions.  The ancient pagans believed in the existence of many gods who competed against one another.  Therefore, no god would ever reveal his plans to a mortal, in fear of their discovery by the other gods.  More generally, the existence of other gods de facto restricted the power of each individual god.  They would therefore operate discreetly.  For this reason, Pharaoh's advisors could not arrive at any interpretation that involved a plan that he could foil.  The only explanations they could offer involved matters beyond the king's control (see Rashi, 41:10).  For a monotheist, obviously, the Almighty has no qualms about disclosing His intentions through prophecy; He has no competition and fears no other beings.  To the contrary, God specifically wants to include mankind in the development and cultivation of the earth; it is entirely consistent with His will to inform a king of an impending famine in order for the kingdom to prepare in advance.

II.   We questioned the Abarbanel's approach in light of Yosef's own words of consolation to his brothers in Parashat Vayechi (50:19).  Read the commentaries of the Ibn Ezra and the Netziv on that verse for a possible resolution.

III. In our discussion of Rav Bin-Nun's approach, we did not elaborate as to why, in Yosef's mind, Yaakov would have deemed him unworthy of inclusion in the covenantal heritage of Avraham and Yitzchak.  We could perhaps point to his reports about his brothers or the dreams themselves.  As we mentioned in the shiur, the brothers took the dreams as indicating that Yosef alone will receive the blessing of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov.  This arrogant presumption itself, Yaakov may have felt, rendered Yosef unworthy of inclusion as part of the family.  Alternatively, Yosef may have thought that Yaakov shifted his preference onto Leah's children, rather than Rachel's.  After all, Rachel had died and was buried along the roadside, rather than in the family burial site.  Yaakov may have decided to afford preference to the older children, the sons of Leah, rather than to Yosef, Rachel's oldest. 

IV. As part of his plea before Yosef at the beginning of Parashat Vayigash, Yehuda recounts the entire series of events starting from their original visit to Egypt.  This account features several nuances absent from the Torah's narrative of their initial encounter with Yosef.  For example, Yehuda seems to expand upon the brothers' description of their family to Yosef: "We have an old father, and there is a child of his old age, the youngest; his full brother is dead, so that he alone is left of his mother, and his father loves him" (44:20).  In light of our discussion in the previous paragraph, why might this pose a difficulty for Rav Bin-Nun's approach to Yosef's conduct?  How may the Chizkuni's reading of that verse provide the answer?

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