Jewish Philosophy of Religion

Tsimtsum In Life Of Pi, Part 2 (Daniel Reiser)

The following is the second of a four-part series. The first can be found here.

Hasidism, which translated Kabbalah into psychological categories, was a target of Elyashiv’s criticism.[1] He likewise opposed Kabbalists active in Jerusalem, such as R. Abraham Isaac Kook and R. Yehuda Leib Ashlag, who offered sociological or nationalistic interpretations of kabbalistic notions.[2] Elyashiv understood well the concern for corporealizing the divine which provided the impetus for metaphorical interpretations of Kabbalah, yet maintained that such approaches differed from the Kabbalah itself:

I am particularly distressed by the words of those contemporary Kabbalists […] who took the elevated most high holy secrets and explicated them in terms of worldly happenings, as though nothing exists on high, heaven forfend, aside that which they perceive in accordance with happenings as they see them. […] Their primary intention in this is to remove and put at a distance any invalid thought of an image, form, or physical or material quality, or created being. […] They therefore compel themselves to author works and increase words. […] They lead everything stated of “emanation” to be garbed in matters of worldly comportment. They may have good intentions, but their actions are not welcome, in my opinion […] for this is far from the quintessence of the study of Kabbalah, for the sanctity and high standing of the study of Kabbalah is chiefly to speak upwards and not downwards, to rectify and rouse their elucidations on high.[3]

Elyashiv maintains that the study of Kabbalah meets a “higher,” not a “lower,” need.[4] A metaphorical interpretation of tsimtsum constitutes a translation of Kabbalah to “matters of worldly comportment.” Kabbalah, however, is not designed for this world and does not convey worldly insights, whether pertaining to psychology, nationalism, or anything else. The words of the Zohar, attributed to R. Simeon bar Yochai (RaShBY), and Luria are to be understood simply, not as metaphors or allegories, “for all of the revelations of the Idra,[5] which are themselves the chief teachings of Luria, contain no image [i.e. metaphor or allegory] whatsoever, […] for all of RaShBY’s words are in a state of revelation, not concealment […] [and the kabbalistic imagery] reflects actual true eternal entities.”[6]

Per Elyashiv, non-literal interpretations of tsimtsum lead to an acosmic perception of the world. If God is everything, then the world is rendered an illusion. This, Elyashiv argues, is an impossibility, both because it goes about our natural senses to “declare that all of existence is not a true existence, for this goes against everything, heaven forfend,” and because this “stands in opposition to the entire Torah.” Why should the sinner be punished if his misdeeds were only an illusion, a deception. What worth do the commandments, or reward and punishment, have if all is truly the light of Ein Sof and nothing else—“if so, where is the entire Torah?”:

I further saw strange remarks in the writings of a certain contemporary Kabbalist who devises subtle reasonings to the effect that […] there is no actual tsimtsum and nothing in the world at all. What a peculiar thing to say, may God protect us from such an opinion. They have neither understood nor perceived that they are affronting the truth of the entire Torah, may God protect us. For they state that there is no existence whatsoever, whether above or below, but rather that all is the simple light of Ein Sof. Everything else that appears is mere illusion but not true. If so, where is the entire Torah?”[7]

An objective examination of the matter ultimately reveals internal contradictions on every side. Those who argue for a literal understanding of tsimtsum preserve the biblical notion of a transcendent God and the traditional distinctions between the sacred and the profane yet are saddled with a mythos tainted by corporealism. Meanwhile, those who advocate for a non-literal interpretation of tsimtsum perpetuate the immanence of God, itself not clean of corporealism, for God is subsequently found within the empty vacuum, within the physicality of this world. Each side accuses the other of corporealizing God, yet with that fails to prove its own “innocence” in the matter.[8]

The Existentialist School of Tsimtsum

The metaphorical conception of tsimtsum has been developed further in numerous directions. Interpretations of tsimtsum have been offered in relation to psychology, sociology, criminology, pedagogy, familial and intimate relationships, society, and more. One school posits that we must contract ourselves in order to “create” and form healthy relationships, whether by nullifying our ego or by stepping back and allowing the formation of a free space beyond us. Only through such tsimtsum can we renew marital, parental, or social relationships. A healthy society is formed when individuals step back to provide room for social ideals and manage to include the “other” who does not follow a normative path.[9]

The well-known hasidic leader R. Nahman of Bratslav surpassed the psychological model, forming an existentialist interpretation of tsimtsum. The radical approach he developed presents religiosity in a new light. R. Nahman was well aware that the theological doctrine of tsimtsum irrevocably leads to insolvable paradoxes, as discussed above, and a dialectic relationship between the Divinity and the world. The world rests upon two contradictory axioms: God’s transcendence beyond the world and imminent presence within the world:

When God wanted to create the world, there was no place in which to create it, since there was nothing but Ein Sof . He therefore contracted the light to the sides, and through this contraction the empty space was made. Then, within this empty space, all time and space came into existence—this being the creation of the world (as explained at the beginning of Ets Hayyim). This empty space was necessary for the creation of the world, since without the empty space there would have been no place in which to create the world, as explained above.

Yet, understanding and comprehending this contraction [that resulted in the formation] of the empty space will be possible only in the future, since it is necessary to say about two contradictory things: existence and nonexistence. The empty space is the result of the contraction; that [God], so to speak, withdrew His Godliness from that place. Thus there is, so to speak, no Godliness there. Were it not so, it would not be vacated. There would then be nothing but Ein Sof, with no place whatsoever for the world’s creation. However the actual truth is that, even so, there is surely Godliness there as well. For there is surely nothing without His life-force. This is why it is not at all possible to comprehend the concept of the empty space until the future.[10]

Since it is “not at all possible to comprehend the concept of the empty space,” R. Nahman intentionally steers the notion of tsimtsum to the personal-existential domain. He utilizes the notion of heresy as a means of analyzing the doctrine of tsimtsum, claiming that there are multiple types of blasphemy. Certain heresies are derived from theological conflict. A religiosity rooted in dogmatic beliefs will find itself in bitter conflict with modern ideologies. R. Nahman opens his discussion of tsimtsum specifically out of a lack of concern towards such theological discord:

Know that there are two types of heresy. One is the heresy that stems from external wisdom. Of this it is said, “And know what to answer the heretic” (m.Avot 2:14), since this heresy has an answer. This is because it stems from external wisdom […] Therefore, although whoever succumbs to this heresy should surely flee and escape from that place, nevertheless, having fallen there it is possible for him to find the way to get free. For he will be able to find God in that place, provided he seeks and searches for Him there […] Consequently, he can find Divinity and intellect there in order to answer the questions raised by this heresy that stems from external wisdom.[11]

“External wisdom” here refers to those philosophies and sciences seen as being at odds with religion, such as science (in regard to the age of the world, evolution, etc.), political theory, and others. While R. Nahman permits engagement with questions such as these, which occupied many modern Jewish thinkers, they do not appear to have bothered R. Nahman himself. More than religious dogmas, he was concerned with the nature of religion—the question “what is belief?” interested him far more than questions of “what may be believed?”

R. Nahman identifies the experience of divine absence as a heresy which presents an existential challenge.[12] Tsimtsum, in this inner conflict, is neither a creation myth nor a metaphor of divine revelation, but rather the dark vacuum formed deep inside of a person at the moment of catastrophe. At times under extreme circumstances people experience a definitive absence of God. A fissure, much like a black hole in the cosmos, is rendered in the human heart petrified by the fear of death. The light of Ein Sof, that is, the Divine presence, is not found there.

The gravity field of a black hole in outer space is so strong such that everything seized by it is inescapably drawn inwards—so too, the black hole in the heart offers no respite, no chance of escape. This is a heresy from which there is no return (R. Nahman plays on the dual meaning of the Hebrew word teshuvah, which signifies both “return” and “answer”). To the first type of heresy, predicated on combative atheistic claims, there is a theological response, enabling one to break free from the conflict. Yet there is another heresy which stems from the negative experience of the absence of God from reality.

There is no theological method to cope with such heresy. Such an individual is not plagued by theological doubts but is rather weighed down by an experience which cannot be expressed in words. It cannot be discussed; no answer may be given. There is no return for the one who falls, willingly or not, into the black hole of the experience of absence:

However, there is another type of heresy […] the philosophers have a number of conundrums and questions […] In truth, it is impossible to answer these questions. This is because the questions [that arise] from this heresy stem from the empty space in which, so to speak, there is no Divinity. There is therefore absolutely no way that one can find an answer for these questions that come from there, from the aspect of the empty space—i.e., [no way to] find God there. For if God were found there as well, it would then not be vacated, and there would have been nothing but Ein Sof, as explained above. […] Therefore, of this heresy it is said (Prov. 2:19): “None that go to her yeShUVun (return).” There is absolutely no teShUVah (answer) for this heresy since it stems from the empty space, from which, so to speak, He contracted His divinity. […] This is because these conundrums and questions [raised] by the heresy that stems from the empty space are the aspect of silence, since there is no intellect or letters to answer them, as explained above. […] This is analogous to what we find of Moses: When he asked regarding the death of Rabbi Akiva, “Is this the Torah, and is this its reward?” they answered him, “Be silent! Thus has it arisen in thought” (b.Menachot 29b). That is, you must be silent and not ask for an answer and solution for this question. […] The same is true of the questions and conundrums that stem from the empty space, where there is no spoken word or intellect, as explained above. They are thus in the aspect of silence; one must simply believe and keep silent there.

The framework of essay paper does not permit a discussion of R. Nahman’s notion of silence, but it is beneficial to examine the sources he cites.[13] These texts point to a heresy arising from terrible suffering. Such torment not only occludes the experience of Divinity but produces an extreme sense of absence comparable to an empty space devoid of even the slightest trace of light (note that R. Nahman does not mention the “reshimu”). R. Nahman cites the heart-rending story of the murder of R. Akiva, the spiritual leader of the Jewish people during the time of the Bar Kokhba revolt.

The Romans brutally hacked him to death alongside several other Jewish leaders, severing his body parts in public.[14] The Talmud recounts that when God granted Moses a prophetic vision of the greatness of R. Akiva and his subsequent death, Moses cried out, “such Torah, and such a reward!?” “Be silent!” was God’s swift response:

Rav Judah said in the name of Rav: When Moses ascended on high […] [the Holy One, Blessed be He] answered, “There will arise a man, at the end of many generations, Akiva b. Joseph by name, who will expound upon each title heaps and heaps of laws.” “Lord of the Universe,” said Moses; “permit me to see him.” He replied, “Turn thee round.” Moses went and sat down behind eight rows [and listened to the discourses upon the law]. Not being able to follow their arguments he was ill at ease, but when they came to a certain subject and the disciples said to the master “Whence do you know it?” and the latter replied “It is a law given unto Moses at Sinai” he was comforted. Thereupon he returned to the Holy One, blessed be He. […] Then said Moses, “Lord of the Universe, Thou hast shown me his Torah, show me his Reward.” “Turn thee round,” said He; and Moses turned round and saw them weighing out his flesh at the market-stalls. “Lord of the Universe,” cried Moses, “such Torah, and such a reward!?” He replied, “Be silent, for such is My decree.”[15]

Moses witnessed the execution of a man charged—according to tradition—with publicly teaching Torah in defiance of the prohibition issued by the Roman general Quintus Tineius Rufus during the years 130-134.[16] Moses, upon witnessing the righteous man’s brutal death, asked the obvious question, “such Torah, and such a reward!?” This is not a logical difficulty, nor a theological position. It is a question born of the deep trauma that emerges from the empty space, from the experience of absence. There is no answer to nor return from such a question from the empty space—God bids him to be silent, for there are no words with which to answer.

What is to be done, then? What advice does R. Nahman have for the individual who peers into the depths of the empty space which has opened in his heart? He instructs one to “pass by,” that is, to leap over the empty vacuum and not fall within:

But through faith, the Jewish people prevail over all the wisdoms and even this heresy that stems from the empty space. This is because they believe in God, without any philosophical inquiry and intellection, but only with perfect faith. […] Now, through faith—their believing that God fills all worlds and encircles all worlds, and since He encircles all worlds then also the empty space itself exists by virtue of His wisdom, and in actual truth His divinity is surely in that place, just that it is impossible to comprehend this and to find God there, as explained above—they accordingly pass by all the wisdoms, questions and heresies that stem from the empty space. […] As a result of philosophical inquiry they become submerged there, because it is impossible to find God there since it is the aspect of the empty space. Rather, a person must believe that God encircles that as well, and that in truth His divinity is certainly there as well. […] This is why the Jews are called IVRiim (Hebrews), because with their faith OVRim (they pass by) all the wisdoms, and even the pseudo-wisdoms—i.e., the second heresy, which stems from the empty space.

For R. Nahman, a person must be an “Ivri” (both a Hebrew and passerby) who passes by the empty space without entering within. A person wavering at the abyss, pulled down by the emptiness wrought by the injustice surrounding them, may be drawn downwards—“never to return”—or, alternatively, “leap” over the vacuum. A person is not responsible for the existence of the vacuum. Suffering oftentimes occurs as the result of external factors beyond one’s control.

Yet we retain control over our relationship to suffering. R. Nahman’s “leap of faith” does not ignore or deny the existence of evil, but rather fosters the development of a certain attitude—which he terms “faith”—towards evil. Faith allows one to leap over the vacuum. It is our decision to either enter or pass over the emptiness. This is a choice of an existential way of life. We may live with “literal tsimtsum” characterized by divine absence in which all is ceaselessly bad. By contrast, one may live a life of “non-literal tsimtsum” in which God is revealed within the absence—in the empty space. Absence or presence within absence—these are two life-stories. The question is not which of the stories is true, but rather which is better.

The Better Story

Pi, too, senses a rift within himself, much like R. Nahman’s empty space, a silent vacuum devoid of any answer or possibility of (philosophical or rational) expression—“I felt a great emptiness within me, which then filled with silence.” (101) God’s indifference was evident throughout his journey, “For days the ship had pushed on, bullishly indifferent to its surroundings. The sun shone, rain fell, winds blew […] the Tsimtsum did not care. (100). Pi stood at the edge of the abyss. “God is hard to believe,” he remarked, “ask any believer.” (297)

Yan Martel tells two stories in Life of Pi. Pi, in both versions, is on the Tsimtsum, suffers, and experiences the absence of God. The first story, starring the animals, is a tale of “non-literal tsimtsum.” Here the tsimtsum is a metaphor; God’s light has only been concealed. Here Pi chooses to leap with faith. Despite the challenges, he finds presence within absence. In a list of his possessions, he writes:

1 boy with a complete set of light clothing but for one lost shoe

1 spotted hyena

1 Bengal tiger 1 lifeboat

1 ocean

1 God (146)

The second story, however, is one of “literal tsimtsum.” The vacuum is indeed empty, the Divinity has evacuated, and Pi is left alone—“‘We’re all alone, Piscine, all alone,’ she said, in a tone that broke every hope in my body.” (307) Mr. Okamota and Mr. Chiba, skeptical about the first story, ask to know the “truth,” the “straight facts”:

Mr. Okamoto: “But for the purposes of our investigation, we would like to know what really happened.”

“What really happened?”


“So you want another story?”

“Uhh…no. We would like to know what really happened.”

“Doesn’t the telling of something always become a story?”

“Uhh…perhaps in English. In Japanese a story would have an element of invention in it. We don’t want any invention. We want the ‘straight facts’, as you say in English.” (302)

After Pi relates the second, “true” story, the men notice that “his stories match,” (311) bringing to mind Pi’s earlier observation, “Isn’t telling about something—using words, English or Japanese—already something of an invention?” (302) The recognition that the stories match leads us to the realization they are both true. One is metaphorical and the other literal, yet the first one is not false. Fiction is not necessarily untrue. The two tales are simply two depictions of the same reality.[17]

Moreover, Martel, who studied philosophy at Trent University, appears to be under the influence of the Kantian revolution in Western philosophy. Per Kant, we do not view reality as it is, but only our own perception of it. Kant seeks to demonstrate that the perception of any given object is shaped by our own subjective experience. Knowledge is born of experience, and not the opposite! We do not engage, then, with nature itself, but only with various “images.” The imagination participates in the acquisition of experience—there is no experience free of imagination.[18]

Existence is not a transcendent source of independent meaning, as had been thought until then, but rather a product of human imagination.[19] The poet W. B. Yeats (1865-1939) gave expression to this revolution, which shifted perceptions of art and poetry, “It must go further still: that soul must become its own betrayer, its own deliverer, the one activity, the mirror turn lamp.”[20] While the pre-Kantian paradigm of the imagination is represented by a mirror which reflects an external existence, the Kantian metaphor is of a lamp, whose light shines outwards creating existence.[21] From this perspective, the second story in Life of Pi does not possess greater reality than the first, for each story simply represents a different perspective on reality.

Martel, in his book, employs the “Rashomon Principle,” a literary concept in which multiple contradictory narratives are put forward without determining which, if any, bears the most truth.[22] Time and again, Martel demonstrates with elegance and sophistication that a single reality may be contemplated from varying perspectives. Thus Pi’s biology teacher, who had declared that “religion is darkness” (27) and that “God does not exist” (ibid.), and the baker, a Sufi mystic—who, not without reason, share the same name—have opposite reactions upon encountering the zebra in the zoo:

“This one’s a Grant’s zebra,” I said.

Mr. Kumar said, “Equus burchelli boehmi.”

Mr. Kumar said, “Allahu akbar.” (84)

Mr. Kumar the biologist cites the Latin name of the Grant’s zebra, identifying it as the smallest of the seven subspecies of the common zebra. Mr. Kumar the Sufi, on the other hand, perceives something immense—the greatness of God.[23] Putting aside the question of scale, the biology teacher perceives a specific animal and it is important to him to categorize and describe it according to its binomial nomenclature.

The Sufi mystic, by contrast, is cast into an experience of astonishment by the sight he beholds; for him, the animal is an indication of the greatness of God. One categorizes and the other stands astonished; one demarcates while the other expands. Truth and falsehood are not at play here, but rather two different mental approaches (which need not one come at the expense of the other).[24]

Daniel Reiser is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Jewish Thought at Herzog College in Israel. His dissertation at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem was entitled “To Fly like Angels: Imagery or Waking Dream Techniques in Hassidic Mysticism in the First Half of the Twentieth Century.”


[1] On this act of translation, see Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York: Schocken, 1961), 341; idem., Explications and Implications: Writings on Jewish Heritage and Renaissance (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1976), 353-354 [Hebrew]; Ron Margolin, Human Temple: Religious Interiorization and the Structuring of Inner Life in Early Hasidism (Jerusalem: Magnes, 2005), 26-27 [Hebrew]; Daniel Reiser, Imagery Techniques in Jewish Mysticism, trans. Eugene D. Matanky (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2018), 373-379.

[2] On Kook’s nationalistic interpretation of Kabbalah, see Jonathan Garb, The Chosen Will Become Herds: Studies in Twentieth-Century Kabbalah, trans. Y. Berkovits-Murciano (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 23-29. On Ashlag’s communist-socialist interpretation of Kabbalah, see Boaz Huss “‘Altruistic Communism’: The Modernist Kabbalah of R. Yehuda Ashlag,” Iyunim: Multidisciplinary Studies in Israeli and Modern Jewish Society 16 (2006): 109-310 [Hebrew]. See, as well, Jonatan Meir, “The Revealed and the Revealed within the Concealed: On the Opposition to the ‘Followers’ of Rabbi Yehudah Ashlag and the Dissemination of Esoteric Literature,” Kabbalah: Journal for the Study of Jewish Mystical Texts 16 (2007): 151-258 [Hebrew].

[3] R. Shlomo Elyashiv, Leshem Shevo ve-Ahlamah: Sefer ha-De”ah (Petrokov: Mordekhai Tsederbaum, 1913), 113.

[4] On theurgy in Kabbalah and the Jewish tradition, see Moshe Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 173-199; Elliot R. Wolfson, Abraham Abulafia – Kabbalist and Prophet: Hermeneutics, Theosophy, and Theurgy (Los Angeles: Cherub Press, 2000); Menachem Kallus, “The Theurgy of Prayer in the Lurianic Kabbalah,” PhD diss., Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2002.

[5] The Idra is a section of the Zohar. It was translated from Aramaic to Judeo-Arabic in Puna, India. See Boaz Huss, “The Sufis From America: Kabbalah and Theosophy in Puna in the Late 19th Century,” in Kabbalah and Modernity: Interpretations, Transformations, Adaptations, eds. Boaz Huss, Marco Pasi, Kocku von Stukrad (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 167-193.

[6] Elyashiv, Leshem Shevo ve-Ahlamah, 113.

[7] Ibid., 114.

[8] See R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady, Igrot Kodesh (New York: Kehot, 1987), 88 (letter 34).

[9] On psychological-therapeutic understandings of tsimtsum, see Mordechai Rotenberg Dialogue with Deviance: The Hasidic Ethic and the Theory of Social Contraction (Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1983); idem., Jewish Psychology and Hasidism (Tel Aviv: Misrad ha-Bitahon, 1997) [Hebrew]; idem., Introduction to the Psychology of Self Contraction (Tsimtsum) (Jerusalem: Reuven Mas, 2010) [Hebrew]; idem, Hasidic Psychology: Making Space for Others (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 2004). See, also, Israel Koren, “Martin Buber’s Dialogistic Interpretation of the Doctrine of ‘Tsimtsum,’” Tarbiz 71, no. 1-2 (2002), 115-247 [Hebrew].

[10] R. Nahman of Bratslav, Likkutei Moharan, vol. 1, §64.

[11] Ibid.

[12] For an in-depth treatment of this experience in R. Nahman, see Shaul Magid, “Through the Void: The Absence of God in R. Nahman of Bratzlav’s Likkutei MoHaRan,” Harvard Theological Review 88, no. 4 (1995): 495-519. Magid emphasizes (ibid., 503) that “His experiences were not of the absence of God’s presence but the presence of God’s absence.”

[13] On this silence, see Dov Elboim, Walk Through the Void (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 2007), 52-70 [Hebrew]; Eliezer Malkiel, Wisdom and Simplicity (Tel Aviv: Miskal, 2005), 157-186 [Hebrew].

[14] See b.Berakhot 61b, “When R. Akiva was taken out for execution, it was the hour for the recital of the Shema, and while they combed his flesh with iron combs […] He prolonged the word ehad until he expired while saying it.” This is the source for the Jewish practice to recite the verse of Shema Yisrael at the moment of death.

[15] b.Menahot 29b.

[16] b.Berakhot 61b.

[17] See, also, Gregory Stephens, “Feeding Tiger, Finding God: Science, Religion, and ‘the Better Story’ in Life of Pi,” Intertexts 14, no. 1 (2010): 51.

[18] The central place of imagination in human consciousness appears in the first edition of The Critique of Pure Reason. See Shmuel Hugo Bergman, The Philosophy of Immanuel Kant (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1991), 45-47 [Hebrew].

[19] Richard Kearney, The Wake of Imagination: Toward a Postmodern Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 156-158.

[20] Meyer Howard Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and The Critical Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1953), front matter.

[21] This metaphor was first expressed by the British literary critic and philosopher William Hazlitt (1778-1830). See ibid., 52. The roots of this perception are located prior to Kant in seventeenth-century British poetry, and even in the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, although it did not develop into a full-fledged theory until Kant, ibid., 58-60.

[22] See Karl G. Heider, “The Rashomon Effect: When Ethnographers Disagree,” American Anthropologist,90 (1988): 73–81; Valerie Alia, Media Ethics and Social Change (New York: Routledge, 2004), 23-33.

[23] In a deeper reading, these are in fact the same Mr. Kumar, for Pi teaches that faith and heresy are two sides of the coin. See Life of Pi, 28: “Atheists are my brothers and sisters of a different faith, and every word they speak speaks of faith. Like me, they go as far as the legs of reason will carry them—and then they leap. I’ll be honest about it. It is not atheists who get stuck in my craw, but agnostics. Doubt is useful for a while […] But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.”

[24] See a similar (but also different) interpretation to “the two zebras”, Karam Ally, “Which Story Do You Prefer,” 96-97.

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