The Little Midrash Says, pt. 1: Narrat[he]ology

Riding in the Narrator's royal chariot

This post is based on an assignment for Joshua Levinson‘s class on the “Cultural Poetics of the Midrash”. H/t‘s are in order to my father and my roommate for discussing it with me as I was working on it. Whoever wants a copy of the original Hebrew (complete with a synopsis featuring eight different textual witnesses!) is free to email me.

Since my last post four months ago and the comments that ensued, I’ve given up entirely on trying to understand Scripture on my own. Instead, I’ve delegated my spiritual quest to the hermeneutics of the Rabbis and their traditional readings of the Bible. Not that it’s so much easier- often times we come across a midrash that barely makes sense at first glance. Even more frequently, the exegetical aspect, the connection to the biblical text, is hard to find. One of the more common forms of rabbinic exegesis is the mashal– parable. Important scholars of rabbinic literature such as Yonah Frankel and David Stern have dealt with the mashal in depth, each in their own mother tongue and utilizing their own methods. One example from the 4th-5th century work Genesis Rabba will suffice to demonstrate the multiple plains on which the mashal operates, and will perhaps shed light on rabbinic theology and attitudes towards reading.

The mashal often serves an exegetical role in rabbinic literature, and we’ll start with the verses which our parable from Genesis Rabba appears to be commenting on. The Alter of Berkley translates Genesis 1: 26-27 as follows:

And God said, “Let us make a human in our image, by our likeness, to hold sway over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the heavens and the cattle and the wild beasts and all the crawling things that crawl upon the earth. And God created the human in his image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them.

A clear contradiction arises when comparing these verses with a passage from the second creation story- Genesis 2: 21-22:

And the Lord God cast a deep slumber on the human, and he slept, and He took one of his ribs and closed over the flesh where it had been, and the Lord God built the rib He had taken from the human into a woman and He brought her to the human.

In chapter 1, God makes a human in their own image, male and female; in chapter 2, the Lord God first creates the human as a male and only later builds the woman. Countless commentators, critics, and theologians of the Bible have written on these and other contradictions that arise when comparing the first two chapters of Genesis. As we will soon see, what bothered the rabbis was a simpler problem in this ancient narrative- why did God have to put man to sleep?

Here’s our parable, based on the Soncino Translation and slightly modified according to a geniza fragment which records this midrash and JPS’s Tanakh translation:

R. Hoshaya said: When the Holy One, blessed be He, created Adam, the ministering angels mistook him and wished to exclaim ‘Holy’ before him.

This resembles a king and a governor who sat in a chariot, and his subjects wished to say to the king, ‘Domine!’ but they did not know which was the king.

What did the king do?

He pushed the governor out of the chariot, and they all knew that he was the governor.

Similarly, when the Lord created Adam, the angels mistook him and wished to exclaim ‘Holy’ before him.

What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do?

He caused sleep to fall upon him, and they all knew that he was man.

Thus it is written (Isa. 2: 22): “Oh, cease to glorify man, Who has only breath in his nostrils! For by what does he merit esteem?”

According the mashal, God put Adam to sleep not to build Eve- a side point, in their eyes- but to markedly differentiate between himself and man. Man, in this early stage of history, serves under God as a form of “governor”, ruling over “the fish of the sea and the fowl of the heavens and the cattle and the wild beasts and all the crawling things that crawl upon the earth”. But God, portrayed by the rabbis here as a jealous ruler, dislikes this balance of power: it disrupts the flow of praise from the administering angels, who do not succeed in differentiating between God and man. In what appears to be a fit of anger, the king acts out and viciously throws his governor out of the royal carriage, making it clear who is really worthy of praise. In the biblical story, the rabbis read God’s actions in a similar fashion. In a fit of anger, God casts a “deep slumber on the human”, forever delineating the line between man and the divine ruler. Sleep, therefore, helps define man as a subordinate.

At the same time that the mashal speaks of man’s nature, it says even more of God’s. God is clearly the creator of everything and all powerful, but in a paradoxical fashion, he subsists on the prayers which he receives from his underlings, and will change his original work (man without sleep) to safeguard those prayers. This point is all the more striking when we take into account the verse which the mashal seems to directly address, Isaiah 2:22:

Oh, cease to glorify man, Who has only breath in his nostrils! For by what does he merit esteem?

This verse comes from Proto-Isaiah‘s three chapter spiel on the future of Jerusalem and Judah, which rants about the lowliness of man and all other creatures, none of whom are fit to stand “before the terror of the Lord And His dread majesty!” (2:10). The rabbinic reading offered in the parable is comforting. Yes, God is great, and He can do whatever he wants. But, there is a limit to how much he will do- after all, he needs underlings to praise him.

This mashal, like most Rabbinic stories, is told by what narratologists refer to as a “heterodiegetic narrator”, or, less cumbersomely, an “external narrator”. The story of the parable (from “this resembles…” until “…he was the governor”) is told by someone who is external to the story itself, and can inform us of what the characters do or say. It is striking to see how the narrator makes himself apparent, calling attention to his role by asking the question “what did the king do?” (narratologists’ “metalepsis“). In asking this question the narrator briefly jumps out of the level of the story itself. Furthermore, the question serves a purpose: it points out to the reader that he as at the whim of the narrator, who is in control of the story and able to impart to his audience whatever information he wishes to share. Whereas the reader does not know what the king did and must wait to be told, the narrator, like the King –and like God- is all knowing and all powerful. The narrator entices us into listening to his story, leading us to believe that we can reach his level of understanding. However, once we are sucked in, he makes it clear that it is he who is in control.

The experience of reading the parable therefore places us in the role of the governor riding in the King’s chariot- the governor got to where he is because the King chose to share his power with him, and such subservience places the governor’s future in complete control of the King. Only through the parable’s exact style are we able to fully understand the governor’s status. To bring it full circle:

Narrator = King = God
Reader = Governor = Man

So too, it is in this fashion that we come to better understand man’s role under the jealous God. God bestows man with a role in the world which requires a certain amount of responsibility. Yet we would be mistaken to think that we will be able to ever reach beyond whatever this part may be. As the supreme Narrator, God may seat us in his royal chariot, but as readers, we are always on the verge of falling out.

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Question Authority: Who (re)Wrote the Bible?

Last year, I chanted the story of Judah and Tamar; my partner Sarah chanted the preceding chapter. The Tamar story interrupts the larger Joseph narrative, splitting the brothers’ betrayal from Joseph’s experience in Egypt. Though the narratives are independent – and indeed the Tamar story appears as a bizarre interpolation – Sarah noticed a neat link. When Tamar confronts Judah with “the signet, and the cords, and the staff” – his guarantees of payment for their sex – she says “recognize please” (haker-na) (Gen. 38:25); Joseph’s brothers use that exact phrase that when presenting his bloody cloak to Jacob (Gen. 37:32). To emphasize the repetition, I chanted my haker-na loudly and slowly, as did she.

At the time, we did not recognize the repeated haker-na’s role in a contemporary debate over how to read the Bible. Writing in Commentary in 1975, Robert Alter had used the Tamar story to exemplify a “literary approach” to the Bible. He notes other similarities between the two narratives – in language, plot, character, and theme. At the start of the Tamar story, Judah “goes down” (an odd locution, perhaps), paralleling Joseph’s being “brought down” to Egypt in 39:1. Thematically, Joseph’s future eclipse of his older brothers mirrors the death of Judah’s first-born sons; Jacob’s emotional reaction to his son’s ostensible death registers ironically against Judah’s stoicism on recognizing Tamar’s claim, and so on. When read together, the stories’ protagonists become full human figures, with complex psychological motivations.

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Ruach Elohim Merachefet al pnei HaMayim

I apologize – I forgot to post last Sunday.  I was on vacation.  Fall Break.  What a great thing.  And then yesterday I found myself still typing away, hard at work at 3am, with only a half-completed thought for this blog so instead of finishing it I went to bed.

But I’ve been thinking about marginalization.  There’s the old adage that you can judge a society by how it treats its weakest members, which I think is true, but I also think its true of how societies treat other societies.  I’ve been thinking about the poor, reading Marx.  I’ve been thinking about the LGBTQ community, discussing the recent suicides.  I’ve been thinking about female sex trafficking since reading parts of Half the Sky (and Nicholas Kristof’s wife is coming to Penn tomorrow).  I’ve been thinking about Palestinians, reading Khalidi and looking at the art of Sliman Mansour who’s art is depicted here:

And I’ve been listening to the Moshav band echo the centuries of Jewish persecution when they sing “there’s no place for the misplaced, no home for the homeless and I’m tired of running, have mercy won’t you take me home” and the full implications of which I will not unpack here.

And in my attempt to find what they all have in common, aside from often being oppressed I’ve found myself trying to use religious language to describe the experience of marginalization.  I think I found some form of an answer in a verb from the first few lines of Genesis.  I have often pondered this word, and now I invite you to ponder it with me:  Merachefet.* The word comes from Genesis 1:2 where it says “Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.”  Here, in the Mechon Mamre translation, it is rendered “hovered”, though in the JPS it is translated “over the surface”.  In modern Hebrew, the word can mean anything from “floating” to “hovercraft” or “hydrofoil”.  But the connotation is clear – the verb implies a sort of amorphous, fog-like hanging, or dangling.  I will use “hovered” as a working translation.  (This also may well connect to Rabbi Nachman’s idea in Torah Samech-Daled [which I recently relearned with Ariel] when he discusses God surrounding the Chalal HaPanui).

This state of mereacheft is a state before being, before existence, before participation in the world.  It precedes creative activity and thus precedes the essence of what it means to be human, what it means to live in the world six days a week.   And it can be a dangerous, teetering, existentially bizarre state.  And I want to make it clear that this is not something I know or have experienced myself – I am projecting.  I have never been marginalized in a way that merits lumping me together with the groups mentioned above.  But perhaps I feel some affinity with the marginalized, at least on a very superficial and privileged level, as a woman who often participates in a religious community that does not see her as a full member though I will in no way claim to have understand what it means to be marginalized – hence my stated awareness:  I am projecting.

This discussion sheds light on what we Jews like to discuss ad nauseum– The Other and our relation to him/her/it.  Slavoj Zizek, the post-Marxist radical sociologist, came to Penn last Wednesday and he discussed Levinas’ view of the Other, which, in brief claims that one’s identity hinges on an external network of Others.  It is the other’s face which makes an unconditional demand on me and that obligates me to him.  Only through him am I a moral being, an ethical self.  Zizek argued that in this conception the “encounter” with the other is an unwanted and necessarily violent act.  The encounter, he said “throws me off of my existence as a simple human animal.”  Essentially, he claims, Levinas’ view reflects a certain kind of narcissism, that, for Levinas, the other must necessarily be weak and impoverished.  He claims that in our culture today, the images of the fragile compose a huge part of our view of ethics.  We see them and we love them, but when they begin to organize, we hate them for taking their oppressed selves away from our condescending affection.  Zizek would say that this view is a part of the ruling ideology and that an ideological function of this concept is the way the we view charity today, expressed in a place like Starbucks where one can – simultaneously – consume and anti-consume. (That’s a video worth watching, by the by)  And I’ve been thinking about this critique of Levinas, and I think it is unforgiving and grants him little nuance.  But for now, my goal is merely to raise this perspective on the marginalized among us, the merechefet nature of the Other, his/her/it’s intrinsic weakness and fragility and expose us to a type of new awareness of what it means to encounter that Other.

*Thanks to Ariel Stein for drawing my attention to this verb once again in his reading of Chatan Bereshit.

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An Anthropic Principle for the Torah?

Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk has an interesting comment on last week’s parsha in his work Meshech Chochma (Gen. 9:7). Some background: there is a debate in the Gemara (Yevamot 65b) regarding whether women are commanded in the mitzvah to be fruitful and multiply. The majority opinion is that women are not commanded, whereas R’ Yochanan ben Berokah argues that women are commanded, quoting the verse (Gen. 1:28) “God blessed them and God said to them “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it.” How do the rabbis come to the conclusion that women are not commanded given this verse? The Gemara quotes two possibilities. According to R’ Ilai, the commandment is juxtaposed to the commandment to “fill the earth and master it,” and it is not part of womanly nature to master the earth. R’ Nachman bar Yitzchak finds a different verse: Jacob is commanded in the singular to be fertile and increase (Gen. 35:11), and thus the commandment applies only to men. (The halacha is that women are not commanded to procreate; the Gemara quotes the story of Yehudit, the wife of R’ Chiya, who, after suffering a difficult pregnancy, asks her husband if she is commanded to procreate and then drinks a potion that renders her infertile.)

R’ Nachman bar Yitzchak’s answer is puzzling: what does he do with the verse in Genesis 1 where women are also commanded to procreate? Tosafot suggest that the verse in Genesis 1 is more a blessing to humans than a commandment, and therefore Genesis 35 is the real root of the commandment to procreate. R’ Meir Simcha proposes a different solution to this question. In a very characteristic way, the Meshech Chochma suggests that both verses are equally valid commandments, but that they applied at different time periods, one before Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden, and the other after.

The Meshech Chochma bases his argument on the principle that “the laws of God and his ways are ‘pleasant ways (darchei noam), and all her paths, peaceful’ (Prov. 3:17), and they do not place upon the Jew a burden that is beyond the body’s capacity to accept.” He brings several proofs for this principle, such as the Talmudic statement that everything that is forbidden by the Torah has a “kosher” replacement (Chulin 109b) and the Torah only commands us to fast one day in the entire year, and that it commands us to eat the day before.

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Modernity is the Size of an Olive

This post is crossposted from my blog,, where you can find other, similar content.

A 2,000 year old Olive Tree in Israel

Recently, Ben secularized the idea, paralleled in Mircea Eliade’s study of religion, of “homogeneous” history. For Eliade, profane time – that is, time without divine intervention to organize it – is a vast, homogeneous expanse, the meaningless tohu vavohu (unformed and void) that precedes creation. Significant theological events punctuate these equilibria, giving birth to a radically new order, a “sacred history.” Some of these sacred interventions are familiar: the creation of the world, the revelations at Sinai or in the Cave of Hira, or the life and death of Christ. I’d like to talk about a more obscure theological event: the shrinking of the olive. Continue reading

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The Philadelphia Negro


Who here feels like the Phi-la-del-phi-a Neegro?

Ya’ll know what I mean. Who here feels him? Y’know relates to him and understands him?”

Welcome to Intro to Sociology with Tukufu Zuberi my first professor with an IMDB profile and a personality to match a Hollywood star.

Brother Tukufu parades around the lecture hall every day in what always seems to be another brand new three piece suit.

Zuberi sitting with the cast of History Detectives. He’s the guy in the middle.

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“Hey! That’s not what we learned in Chumash class!” On attempting to read Scripture

Michaelangelo's depiction of the expulsion from Eden

"Goddamn those cherubim!" Did Michaelangelo forget that God made sure to clothe Adam and Eve (3:21) before he expelled them?

Elisheva‘s notes on the Qur’an’s “self awareness” got me thinking about our own awareness while we read our scripture. When approaching what is perhaps the most explained book in history, can we ever truly read its stories and laws without the shackles of prior elucidations? Luckily, Jewish tradition tells us to go through this text relatively often- portions of it must be read publicly and privately numerous times every week, in conformance with a one year cycle. At the start of this rotation, which began last week with the reading of the first section of the book of Genesis, I began to notice one particular narrative which was never pointed out to me during my Modern-Orthodox indoctrination. Continue reading

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A Self-Conscious Scripture

I’ve been pouring – for hours – over the a Scripture that is new to me.  I’m making up the three assignments that this past holiday of Simchat Torah cost me.  But I am not posting to gripe about the difficulties of being an observant Jew on a (semi-)secular campus.  I am posting to discuss one of the Scriptures that I did not dance with this past weekend:  The Qur’an. Continue reading

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Today I Saw Two Bodies

Today I saw two bodies. Well, I didn’t actually see them. I biked past a paramedic and a group of people gathered in front of yellow crime tape. I turned around to join them. There was a lowered concrete viaduct with a small current of water. It was covered by concrete beams, set about three feet apart. There was a ladder leading down into the viaduct and two policemen and a paramedic at the bottom. One of them was kneeling with his hands resting on his cheeks, wearing a bright orange reflector vest. I didn’t know what had happened so I asked someone in the assemblage: They found two bodies.

I couldn’t see any bodies but I was curious because I have never seen a dead body. There were cop cars everywhere. It seemed like a very mundane event. With no corresponding headlines or flashing tickertape the emergency didn’t feel particularly urgent. Just people gathered on the side of the street like they would for a musician, or to talk. I bike down Broad St. nearly every day. It was hard for this to feel exceptional though it was clearly disturbing.

Earlier in the day I had gotten a flat tire while biking through Central City–the area everyone says I’ve got to watch out for. The ghetto. New Orleans is filled with abandoned houses, but here they feel inescapable, permanent. I started walking with a flat rear tire. The sun was so bright and the air was just starting to chill. A diverse palette of colored paints crumble off the houses. People are quiet out on their porches.

There is a lot of emphasis on noises made in New Orleans, but there can exist here a sweeping hush: a chorus of murmurs, a deserted wasteland.

I was confident but a little scared.  The street was empty and many people were sitting out on their porches. It gave me the feeling of walking down a long narrow stage with strips of audience, the sole attraction of a pathetic parade.

After about a mile a man appears by my side. He walks with me and whispers hurriedly.  He doesn’t have many teeth but a prominent brown one juts from the top of a thin-lipped grin.  He is wearing a grey paperboy hat and an intricately patterned long sleeve wool polo shirt, in brown and gold. He wears slacks and I am struck simultaneously that he hasn’t changed from this outfit in years and that he must be unendurably hot.

His face is cracked and somewhat gnarled though he strikes me as quite young, chipper even. He speaks continuously in a whisper, never allowing me time to respond: “Yes you must have hit a damn nail, I see, I see, a piece of glass, a piece of glass. That’s a fast ass bike. Where’d you get that bike man. That bike will get your ass across town quick. Quick. Yes, that’s a fast ass bike. Come with me and I’m going to get you all straight, that’s what I do. That’s what I do. Anyone in the neighborhood needs help with a bike they come to me. Yes they come to me. See that blue pickup truck up there. Yeah that’s my place. Yeah come with me baby and I’ll fix you up. That’s what I do. I’ll patch that motherfucker. I just hope you didn’t keep riding it after it burst, I’ll patch that motherfucker.”

He speaks many words quickly but his demeanor is slow, his mannerisms sparse. He hobbles a little bit.

“Whas your name?”


“Damnit you not going to believe this but my name is Evans Douglas McKinsey. I’m Evans too. Two Evans. Shit.”

Before long I join him on his front stoop. He enters a screen door, and I can’t see anything but darkness inside. His wife, presumably sick, voices exasperation.

“The man needs help,” He protests.

“I need help too!”

“Now what the fuck you need help with woman?”

He walks out carrying a large black bag that reminds me of the one my grandfather used to take on house visits, that now sits in the attic stuffed with hideously outdated remedies. He tells me to turn my bike upside down, and takes out a rusty, two-foot long wrench. Well whatever happens happens, I resign to myself. I’m not about to protest as he starts unscrewing my back wheel.

He must sense how nervous I am as I watch over him. He starts whispering the phrase “we good” at a maniacally staggered pace. These utterances unsettle me, as if something illicit is happening. It is unclear if his intention is to soothe and reassure, or if something more sinister is happening.

He pops my tire off with a large spackling tool, and has me pump up the tube to find the leak. “Pump, man. Pump damnit. I thought you was in a hurry. Do you see that hole? Look at that big ass hole. Now rub all on the inside of that tire and find you a piece a glass or some shit. Something sharp in there pop that.”

A man about my age shows up at the house wearing a crisp oversize white shirt with colored musical notes and the word ‘Jazz.’ He has dreadlocks down past his shoulders and jean shorts almost to his feet. He abruptly drops his bike to the ground.

“Evans this my son.”

I shook his hand.

“Where you been all night son? You been partying? I bet you up in the French quarter getting motherfucking wasted.”

The son raises his hands above his shoulders to express exhausted solidarity with the concept of being wasted.

He slams the door on his way inside.

After everything is patched up I have my bike upright. The tire quickly becomes flat again.

“Aw I’m not gonna do that to you.  We got to fix this. You musta rid this after you got a flat. I got a bucket of water. We gonna find this leak.”

Becoming impatient, I watch him repeat the process of wrenching off my wheel and popping-off my tire.

“Where you work at a restaurant? I bet you work a nice restaurant. I need to get me a good job washin dishes or something at a restaurant. I been a roofer, aint no job for a man. In the sun all day, all day about to fall. All up on that hot roof. Goddamn.”

My bike is upright again and this time it appears to be patched. Evans smiles and sticks out a hand. It is unclear whether he is beckoning for money or seeking a shake. I decide to go for a shake because I don’t have cash anyway.

“Aw don’t do this to me man. Please don’t do this to me. This how I make my living. I need Eighteen dollars and Fifty Cents.”

I start rooting through my backpack but I know I don’t have more than a dollar.

“Is there a bank anywhere?”

“Shit come with me.”

He climbs onto his son’s bike and I start riding after him. He takes me to a nearby convenient store that is popping.

“I’ll wait out here with the bikes, there’s an ATM in there.”

My stomach sours as I hit yes on the ATM’s warning that I am about to be charged $2.95 to withdraw cash. There are about ten people crowded around the cash register. One woman with bulging eyes worms her way to the front.

“Get me one of them pickles. I want a pickle!”

The man slowly opens a jar of bright yellow liquid behind the register and uses a pair of tongs to place a chubby pickle in a sandwich bag.

I get change and take the money out to Evans. I try to get him to settle for $15 but he won’t budge. He grabs one of my fives and runs into the store to get change. On his way out he pats me on the back, stuffs two dollars in my hand, and disappears as quickly as he had arrived.

I’ve wanted to dwell during my rides through central city, to admire the resilience of the people and the buildings. Today I just wanted to get out of there. I felt sick.  I felt like I didn’t belong, like I had crossed some kind of threshold. Central City was a different planet. There might as well have been a concrete wall around the whole neighborhood. I could just get on my bike and leave, though it seemed the people who lived there would never be able to leave, as hard as they tried.

I felt guilty. I quickly rode out of the neighborhood and considered to myself why I had paid Evans the money, because it sure as hell wasn’t just for a tube patch.

I biked straight home and collapsed onto my orange couch. I closed my eyes and saw Evans’ protruding tooth, his flickering smile, his outstretched hand.

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Glatt Treif

That was the title of the OPCY (Orthodox Community at Penn at Yale) email that sent this link straight fro the New York Times.

It just so happens that our very own Orthodox leader on that fateful flight to Tel Aviv some five years ago…is quoted.   I recommend reading the article – but when you come back to this, here’s what how he’s quoted:

Rabbi Shimon Felix, an Orthodox rabbi and religious educator in Jerusalem, said he thought Dr. Landau’s intent was “let’s stick it to the religious tradition.”

“There’s something childish to being so naughty,” the rabbi said. “It’s more mature and adult to look at this as an ancient tradition.”

and later…

Dr. Landau said that ultra-Orthodox Jews, who would be most likely to protest, haven’t heard of it because they don’t watch cable news or read the mainstream press.

Oh, it’s not that they’re unaware of it, Rabbi Felix said, it’s that they just don’t care.

My questions regarding this are as follows:  1) Who is Jeffery Yoskowitz?!  And which year was he…?  2) What is Viennese-style pork neck schnitzel cut very thick?  3) I think Shimon is probably wrong on the first count and right on the second count.  The ultra-Orthodox don’t care about this, but I’m not sure this guy was just doing it to be naughty.  I think modern Israel (at least Tel Aviv) is quite ready for this.  4) Is the last line true?  “It was not possible 20 years ago,” Dr. Landau said. “In 20 or 30 years, it will be a natural thing. I don’t think I will be around to see it.”

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