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Parshas Shoftim
Shudder or Blind?
By Rabbi Pinchas Winston

FRIDAY NIGHT:

One who accepts a bribe will not depart from this world until he has become blind. (Kesuvos 105b)

We can draw either one of two conclusions from this statement from the Talmud: either very few people ever take a bribe (because there are not that many blind people in this world, thank G-d), or, it is not to be taken literally. In other words, the Talmud does not necessarily refer to physical blindness, but to spiritual blindness as well, which, of course, is going to be the subject of this particular d'var Torah.

Last week, Moshe gave a discourse on fearing G-d:

Now, Israel, what does Hashem your G-d, ask of you, but to fear Hashem your G-d and to walk in His ways ... (Devarim 10:12)

Even the Talmud was astounded by Moshe's seeming over-simplification of one of the most difficult mitzvos to fulfill, a mitzvah that, if you don't constantly work on improving, one tends to become weaker in (Brochos 34b). Therefore, the Talmud concludes that for Moshe, who had such close contact with G-d, it was a simple matter to fear G-d.

However, that answer is also an over-simplification of an important point, because Moshe was not one to talk above the heads of his students. On the contrary, one of Moshe's greatest abilities, necessary for transmitting Torah to entire nation, was his uncanny ability to simultaneously talk to each Jew on that Jew's personal level of understanding. And each Jew had a different personal level of understanding! So, why assume, all of a sudden, that Moshe lost that ability, and at the most important point in his career?

This is why a better answer is that Moshe was trying to convey another point, and that is, yetzer hara aside, "seeing" G-d is the easiest and most logical thing to do.

In other words, all biases aside, is there really any better explanation for all the questions about life in this universe, theological and scientific, than G-d Himself--the "Force of All Forces"? All moral implications aside, doesn't G-d best fit the bill when it comes to a "natural" direction for self-growth? Rav Elchanan Wasserman, zt"l, certainly believed so, and so would we if we would stop taking bribes to believe otherwise.

Bribes? What bribes?

Ever notice how few people come forth against G-d in the name of "ultimate truth" and "intellectual honesty." Well, actually, they call it that, but it can't be what they say, because logic dictates otherwise. To be an atheist means to have "proof" that G-d doesn't exist, and THAT for sure doesn't exist. Agnostic? That may be possible, if only for the sake of maintaining free-will. However, if one doubts the existence of G-d, when there is so much reason to believe in His existence, he ought to spend day-and-night trying to get to the bottom, or rather, the top of the matter. Ignoring the Master of the Universe is just too great a risk, with something like Gehinnom looming over the spiritual horizon.

So, why do so many people profess to be agnostic, happily agnostic, with little if any desire to become clearer about G-d's existence? The answer has been the same now for thousands of years now, for, though man's "clothing" changes, man's essence, itself, does not.

Life without G-d is also a life without Absolute Morality, and a life without Absolute Morality means never having to worry about doing the "wrong" thing, a much easier, more physically and emotionally comfortable life to live.

But, oh! what an intellectual balancing act you have to perform to live that way. The rationalizations, and excuses for not "seeing" G-d and believing in Him are many, and often sophisticated. However, still, in our heart-of-hearts, something tells us, "But what if we're wrong?" Deep inside, barely audible, a voice whispers, "What if we're making a bigggggg mistake?"

Enter the bribe.

The yetzer hara chimes in and says, "Well, you know there is reason to doubt, don't you? ... Ah, you know religion has been called the 'opium of the masses'? ... Besides, how could you ever live in both worlds at once, you know, the secular one and the religious one? You want to be a misfit, you know, a relic from the past? Stick with me and you'll 'fit in,' you'll make it to the top ... be right up there with ... with ... Besides, what about anti-Semitism? ... And what about the dinosaur bones ... and fossils ... and carbon dating ... and ... and ..."

And, so on. It's a pretty convincing argument, for someone wishing to be convinced. However, it is also a heavy psychological burden to bear, because ultimately-speaking, we know it is just not true--not true and not even logical. If I had more time, I'd give you more examples why. If I had more lines, I'd write about all the stories of people who, just before they died, broke out crying like a child, in fear of having to answer their Maker in a short while, with little or no time left to make amends.

In fact, I heard one story not too long ago that involved Rabbi Ya'akov Kamenetsky, zt"l, many years back. He was called in by a family he did not know to a hospital to help a dying man, a secular Jew, prepare for death. Compelled to help any Jew he could, though extremely busy, Rabbi Kamenetsky visited the man, unsure of what to expect.

The moment the dying man saw Rabbi Kamenetsky, he burst out crying. And he cried. And he wailed, "I've been the biggest sinner! I have strayed so far from the truth and the ways of G-d." And he cried so more, and he wailed some more, until he broke into a bronchial spasm, forcing the nurses to sedate him before he coughed himself to death. Rabbi Kamenetsky, shocked and deeply saddened by the man's condition, both his physical and spiritual condition, comforted him by saying, "We can finish tomorrow. I will come back and visit you again tomorrow," and he left.

Tomorrow did not come for the man, who died that night. The family asked Rav Ya'akov to deliver a eulogy for the man he had never really met, and he accepted out of respect for the man's family, and the deceased. As he stood there (presumably before more people he did not recognize), he told those gathered before him, "I never met the man before I came to the hospital that day, nor did I have time with him again. But I will tell you one thing for certain, this man did teshuvah--I have never seen someone do teshuvah like this man did that day."

If only he had shuddered like that when he had been alive, and full of life!

Where was the yetzer hara that day? Dying. Where was the bribe then? It was worthless. And there, lay a man breathing his last breaths of life in This World, with a clear vision of truth, a natural vision of truth, what a person sees without difficulty, when he puts also personal "shtik" aside, and rejects the bribes of the yetzer hara. It was this, that Moshe Rabbeinu, the greatest teacher of all, was intimating that day: all shtik aside, seeing G-d, and valuing a relationship with Him, is the easiest, more natural, and most human thing to do when you choose honesty over the "bribe."


SHABBOS DAY:

You must not remove a landmark of your neighbor which was established from the beginning at the time of your inheritance which you will inherit... (Devarim 19:14)

This is a mitzvah to not enlarge your portion in the land of Eretz Yisroel by pushing back the boundary marker of your neighbor. After the Jewish people conquered the Land of Israel over seven years under the leadership of Yehoshua, they then spent the next seven years dividing up the land according to tribes and families. Once those boundaries were established, they were fixed on earth and in Heaven.

"But does it not already state, 'One must not rob'? Why does it then state, 'You must not remove a landmark of your neighbor'? This was in order to teach you that one who destroys his neighbor's landmark transgresses two commandments (don't remove the landmark, and, don't steal). One might think that this applies outside of Israel as well! Therefore, it states, 'of your inheritance which you will inherit.' Thus, only in the land of Israel does one transgress two commandments, whereas outside the land one is only guilty of stealing." (Rashi)

As Rashi points out, increasing one's property size by illegally taking a piece of one's neighbor's is a black-and-white sin of stealing. That is true anywhere in the world Jews may live and own property, without exception. However, when the properties in question are also inheritances in the Land of Israel, then there is an additional sin of interfering with the Divine allotment of Eretz Yisroel to the tribes.

Why must this mitzvah be added? One could say, to make the sin of stealing land in Israel more severe, which is true in any case. It is not that stealing from another outside of Israel is less an act of stealing; it is that stealing land in Eretz Yisroel is more severe, because it entails a disruption of the Heavenly boundaries as well.

This is because Eretz Yisroel is more than just another land on the face of the earth. Eretz Yisroel, like so many other holy things in creation (like the Mishkan for example), is an earthly replication of a Heavenly reality. And just like every Jewish soul corresponds to a letter of the Torah, so, too, does every Jewish soul have its unique and Divinely-ordained spot in Eretz Yisroel, as it says:

The goal of inheriting a portion of Eretz Yisroel has been to help each Jew find his own portion within Torah Sh'b'al Peh. (Zohar Chadash 2:137b)

That is, the Oral Law. It is called a country whose air makes its inhabitants wiser, and a place where the Oral Law is best understood. And developing one's own unique relationship to the Oral Law is based upon living within the boundaries of one's own unique portion of Eretz Yisroel. And that is why a unique mitzvah to not illegally move a neighbors boundary-marker can only be relevant within Eretz Yisroel.


SEUDAH SHLISHI:

He will say to them, "Hear O Israel, you are close today to war and to your enemies ... Do not let your hearts become faint! Do not be afraid and don't be rushed, and do not become terrified before them." (Devarim 20:3)

War, for the Jewish people, is not a new thing. Since we left Egypt, we have had to do battle with almost every nation we have met. However, what has changed is the feeling of G-d fighting amongst our ranks ...

"For Hashem your G-d goes with you to do battle for you with your enemies to save you from them."

Given the miracles of Jewish survival, and the unbelievable victories against the odds, G-d certainly fights on our behalf. We may not always feel it that much, but, as we saw in 1967 (Six-Day War), and again in 1991 (Persian Gulf War), G-d is with us.

In fact, the day that Suddam Hussein finally "scudded" Israel after months of threats, and that George Bush told the Israelis not to retaliate, promising that the America people would defend Israel with Patriot missiles, was the same day that the second "aliyah" of Parshas Beshallach "chanced" along. In that aliyah (Shemos 14:9), with their backs to the sea and facing a massive and hostile Egyptian army, the Jewish people cried out to Moshe in desperation. Moshe answered them famous words, "Do not say anymore ... G-d will fight this battle for you!"

How's that for Divine Providence.

"But," you may say, "that verse is talking about a different period of history. How could we imagine G-d fighting for us today, when we are so distant from Him and barely keeping His mitzvos?!" Rashi answers that question based upon the above verse:

"Hear O Israel ... Even though you have no other merit than the fulfillment of the commandment of saying "Shema," you would still deserve that He should help you." (Rashi)

Well, that changes everything. That's all we have to do--say the Shema everyday? After all, it is only six words and fifty letters ... What does it take to say the Shema? About ten seconds, actually, if you add to it the second posuk of "Boruch Shem kevod ..."

Perhaps. And then perhaps, there is more, for, incorporated into those six words is everything a Jew ought to know about living in This World, especially when it comes to going to war.

"Hear O Israel, the L-rd Our G-d, the L-rd is One," means, in short, that no one has power in creation but G-d Himself, even our enemies: All the forces in creation come down to one Force, the Force, G-d Himself. So, why then do our "enemies" seem so powerful, and so angry, and so willing to do us harm ... and so capable of fulfilling their will? Because, says the Shema, we believe they are ... which is why we come to fear them more than G-d in the first place.

That's a no-no.

However, for one who recites the Shema with the proper understanding and intention of, "Ain Od Milvado"--there is none other besides Him--then G-d will fight his battles for him, on a personal level and a national level. Furthermore, it will be clear that this is the case, because the miracles will be obvious enough to him/them to prove the point--even if others don't concur (many people weren't impressed in 1991 with the Beshallach connection).

Therefore, when it is all said and done, the Shema may consist of only six words and fifty letters, but, they are a story unto themselves--the entire story unto themselves.


MELAVE MALKAH:

(I forgot to mention previously how appropriate it is that we discuss Tehillim during the Fourth Meal/Melave Malkah. This is the meal that is called "Seudos d'Dovid Malkah" (people actually say these words during the meal), the "Meal of King David." This is because, King David was foretold that he would die on Shabbos, but he never knew on which one. Every Shabbos he lived through was, therefore, cause for praise to G-d, and he made a thanksgiving feast Motzei Shabbos to do just that.)

It is not that way for the evil. They are like chaff the wind blows away. Therefore, the wicked will not be vindicated in judgment, nor the sinful in the assembly of the righteous. For, G-d knows the way of the righteous, while the way of the wicked is doomed. (Tehillim 1:4-6)

"And that is why I would never want to be evil!" a person may think to himself. "I mean, I'm not perfect," he might be quick to add, "... making mistakes here and there ... But evil? Not I!"

Fortunately, that is true. History is not usually filled with that many evil people (though one evil person is one too many!); just a lot of mediocre people doing, sometimes, well, not so nice things. And sometimes, even an evil thing or too.

Even Jews, many people often point out, have been capable of sinking quite low, morally-speaking. Within the people that was taken out of Egypt to be a "light unto nations," there have been some pretty burnt-out "bulbs." How could that be? That is a question that deserves to be answered, and though this d'var Torah is usually the shortest of the four, this week, it will be somewhat of a journey into the psyche of the Jew. I believe it is worth goingthe distance, though I ask forgiveness from the outset for being so long-winded (that is, longer than usual ...).

We are B'nei Yisroel, and we are B'nei Ya'akov, because we descend from both of them, Ya'akov and Yisroel. Of course we do, because they are one and the same people. Yisroel was born "Ya'akov," and Ya'akov later became "Yisroel" at the age of ninety-seven, on his way to Eretz Yisroel in the year 2205/1556 BCE.

The truth is, as the Talmud points out, Ya'akov never really became only "Yisroel" (Brochos 13a), and we see that the Torah uses the name interchangeably. It seems that Ya'akov's name change represents a potential, a spiritual potential, that was achieved that fateful night.

What fateful night? The night that, according to the Torah, Ya'akov fought with a "stranger" (Bereishis 32:25), and according to the Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 77:2), with an angel. And not just any angel, but the protecting angel of Edom, the future nation of his brother, Eisav (Lekach Tov).

This episode was towards the end of Ya'akov's long journey home. After cunningly taking Eisav's blessings from their father Yitzchak, Ya'akov was forced to flee a furious, vengeful murderous brother, Eisav. After fourteen years of Torah learning in the yeshivah of Shem and Eiver, Ya'akov headed off to Padan Aram (Mesopotamia), and his uncle Lavan's house.

Twenty years, two wives, and eleven children later, Ya'akov sensed it was time to leave his deceitful father-in-law, and return to the land of his fathers, Eretz Yisroel. He did exactly that, knowing full well that he would once again have to cross paths with his dangerous brother, Eisav. It was a high price to pay, but a necessary one, if Ya'akov was ever going to return home to Eretz Yisroel.

Or was it? The Midrash seems to paint a different picture of Ya'akov's so-called fateful confrontation:

Rav Huna began, "Like one who grasps a passing dog by the ears, so is one who becomes impassioned over discord that is not his own." (Mishlei 26:17). Shmuel bar Nachman said, it can be compared to leader of thieves who was sleeping by the crossroads, of whom a person passed and aroused saying, "Get up! It is dangerous here!" He asked him, "Are you the bad person? Why did you wake me up? (Matanos Kehuna) You awoke the bad person and endangered your own life!" So said The Holy One, Blessed is He, to Ya'akov, "He [Eisav] was going his own way (i.e., his anger had subsided; Matanos Kehuna), and you sent to him [messengers] and said to him, 'So says your servant Ya'akov ...' ." (Bereishis Rabbah 75:3)

According to the Midrash, Ya'akov antagonized Eisav, and picked a fight that could have been avoided. Why would Ya'akov do a thing like that? Why would the gentle-natured Ya'akov actually go looking for a fight? Yet, on the other hand, it was a move that eventually led to Ya'akov's struggle with the angel, that led to his crucial name change:

"Your name shall no longer be called Ya'akov, but Yisroel, for you have struggled with a heavenly being and with man, and have prevailed." (Bereishis 32:29)

-a very positive sign.

Perhaps we can understand Ya'akov's intention and success my recalling an earlier dialogue that also involved Ya'akov, and his new, unintended wife, Leah. Rachel had warned Ya'akov that Lavan would try to make the switch, and Ya'akov had been prepared. However, after the marriage took place, Ya'akov found out that, in spite of his best efforts to counter Lavan, he ended up being married to Leah instead of Rachel.

Ya'akov would have to deal with Lavan later. In the meantime, Leah, too, had been party to the ruse, and she had to answer for herself:

"How could you pretend to be Rachel, and answer me when I called you her name?" an angry Ya'akov demanded. "I am your student! Didn't you come to your father, dressed as Eisav, and when your father called you "Eisav," you responded? I only imitated you!" Leah defended. (Aitz Yosef)

In other words, Leah was pointing out the irony of the situation. "You disguised yourself as Eisav, and deceived your father to accomplish what you thought was best," Leah countered, "and I have done the same to you!"

However, was Leah correct and justified? Not only do two wrongs not make a right, but perhaps Ya'akov could have proven that his had be a "right," while Leah's was clearly an act of deceit. For, Ya'akov could have answered, "There is a difference here. I was saving the future of the Jewish people, and you were merely saving yourself! Furthermore, legally, marriage demands that each partner accept the other as his or her spouse, and I do not accept you as my wife! You were meant for Eisav!" (Rashi, Bereishis 29:17)

True. However, in spite of this answer to Leah, we must note that Ya'akov never abandoned Leah, nor was their marriage annulled. In fact, as the Torah testifies, Ya'akov grows to love Leah. Eventually, it becomes clear that Leah was also meant for Ya'akov from the beginning. How? Why? What changed Ya'akov's perspective on the situation?

Perhaps, there was an additional element to the dialogue mentioned above by the Aitz Yosef, and perhaps it went something like this?

"How could you do this to me?! How could you pretend to be Rachel when all along you were Leah!?" Ya'akov asked angrily. "What are you asking me about?" Leah answered innocently. "What do you mean what am I asking you about?" Ya'akov demanded. "You know full well that you were supposed to marry Eisav, not me!" Ya'akov pressed. "I did!" Leah answered.

Pause. Leah's answer would have been confusing, and it would have forced Ya'akov to ask, "How's that?" to which Leah would have had to explain, "When you bought the birthright and took the blessings, you, for all intents and purposes, became Eisav!"

After all, Yitzchak did state:

"It is the voice of Ya'akov, but the hands of Eisav." (Bereishis 27:22).

-as if to say:

"Whoever stands before me now can't be the Ya'akov I knew, because he is a simple person who does little else other than learn Torah. It certainly can't be the Eisav I knew, because he's not so quick to thank G-d for his successes. Whoever you are, you are a hybrid of the two!"

In other words, what Ya'akov learned that day from Leah was that buying the birthright and taking the blessings in place of Eisav was far more than a symbolic gesture on history's part. Rather, as different as Ya'akov felt from Eisav to that very day, he found out from Leah that there was a lot of Eisav within him. After all, they were twin brothers to begin with!

What a shock that must have been for Ya'akov, a real awakening for a man that, up until then, had done everything he could to distance himself from his evil brother and his ways. Now, it seemed from Leah and history, that there was a part of his brother that had been following him around everywhere he went-inside his very being!

The implications of this reality would have been frighteningly clear to Ya'akov immediately. Within the father of the future Jewish people, and therefore within the people themselves, was a potential to become Eisav-like (we see the truth of this throughout Jewish history, in almost every period). Therefore, for the sake of all his future descendants, Ya'akov personally felt compelled to confront Eisav, but not just any Eisav, but specifically the "Eisav" within himself, to purge himself of his own "Eisavness" as much as he could. That meant, apparently, a rendezvous with Eisav's protecting angel, wherever and whenever that might be.

It turned out to be by the Yavok river, and eastern tributary of the Jordan river, north of the Dead Sea: He arose that night, and took his two wives, two handmaids, and his eleven children, and crossed the Yavok river ... Ya'akov was left alone, and there he wrestled ... (Bereishis 32:22-24)

Rashi seemingly senses nothing extraordinary about the name of this river, and says nothing other than "Yavok" was the "name of the river." Then again, as Rashi points out from time-to-time, he only comments to provide clarity on the simple explanation of the verse. Deeper explanations are the role of the midrashim and Kabbalah. And, in this case, they provide exactly that.

To begin with, there is:

Within [the name] "Ya'akov" is the mystery of "Yavok," whose letters (yud, bais, kuf) stand for the words, "y'aneinu v'yom kareinu"-"on that day He will answer us"; the mystery of "Yavok" is very, very deep, because three names [of G-d] numerically equal "Yavok" ... (Yalkut Reuveini, Aikev, 2)

According to this midrash, the word "Yavok" is actually an abbreviation for three words which mean, "on that day He will answer us." On which day, and who will answer us? Well, according to every other usage of this phrase, it always refers to G-d redeeming the Jewish people from exile once-and-for-all-an awesome day in history.

This would make a lot of sense, given that the rabbis view Ya'akov's all-night struggle with the angel of Eisav as an allusion to the "night" of exile the Jewish people were destined to endure (Rabbeinu Bachaye; Targum Yonason; Tanchuma). Surviving the angel and proving victorious in the morning is, therefore, the allusion to the Jewish people reaching the Final Redemption in the days of Moshiach.

In fact, of all the accounts in the Torah, very few are the source of as much symbolism as the battle with the angel that night. Therefore, the more symbolic the struggle was for Ya'akov to become Yisroel, the more symbolic the name "Yavok" becomes of that struggle. Ya'akov was the twin-brother of Eisav; Yisroel is not, and the Yavok river, therefore, symbolized the transformation from Ya'akov to Yisroel, as the following reveals:

... If a person will endeavor to learn the hidden wisdom of Torah, that is, the secrets of Torah (Kabbalah), then he will merit to receive his Neshamah (third level of soul after "Nefesh" and "Ruach") ... and add level to level, and wisdom to wisdom, then he will be called a "Complete Person" ... When a person only has his Nefesh, then he receives only from "aleph-dalet-nun-yud"; If he merits to receive his Ruach, then he receives from "yud-heh-vav-heh"; when he learns the mysteries of Torah, then he receives also from "aleph-heh-yud-heh". When the three names are added together, the gematria is "Yavok" ... (Sha'ar HaGilgulim, Hakdamah 18, p. 51)

From this quote of the Arizal, it is clear that "Yavok" is not merely the name of the river that Ya'akov just happened to meet an angel, fight with him, prevail, and receive a name change. Yavok is the word that alludes to the very spiritual perfection-and redemption-that transforms a "Ya'akov" into a "Yisroel." This is why, perhaps, the name Ya'akov itself has the word yavok within it, as if to allude to Ya'akov's potential to become a Yisroel.

And, this is why Yavok speaks of the time that G-d will answer us, because that is the day of redemption, the time that we stop being the twin brother of Eisav, and stop sharing his tendencies, which we have done so meticulously at times throughout history. We have been, to borrow the vernacular, better Greeks than the Greeks themselves at times. Ya'akov may have physically crossed the Yavok river thousands of years ago, but every Jew since has had to cross his own Yavok river at some point in time, to become a true and eternal Yisroel.

How much more so is this the case in our fast-paced, fast assimilating society, where almost anything goes! How many Jews today even know about Ya'akov, and their inherent potential to rise above our surrounding Eisavian society, to become a Yisroel? How many Jews care to change their lifestyles?

It is interesting to note, a rabbi pointed (half-seriously), that the letters "Y2K," which stand for the "Year 2000," when translated into Hebrew spell the work "Yavok":

y = yud
2 = bais
k = kuf

Does this mean anything special? Perhaps not. Then again, the Talmud tells us that everything that happens in life is a function of Divine Providence (Chullin 7b). In other words, according to Torah, there are no coincidences, though sometimes what we perceive as a "sign from Heaven," may in fact, be a test of faith. And sometimes, what we perceive as a test of faith, may be a sign from Heaven. And, sometimes, it may be both.

The trick in life is knowing how to understand and interpret what one perceives. This is a function of knowing Torah, and the more one knows, the better his perception of reality will match G-d's-the ultimate accomplishment for a flesh-and-blood being. The deeper and more profound that knowledge of Torah is, the deeper and more profound his understanding and interpretation of reality will be.

Who even first coined the term, "Y2K"? Personally, I don't know, but it is an interesting and unusual term, and that's what counts the most:

"That which is from G-d is wondrous in our eyes." (Tehillim 118:23)

What are the odds of these three letters spelling the word "yavok"? Does it really make a difference in the end? At the very least, it is reminder that all of us have to cross our own "Yavok river" at some point in our lives. And, as the nation struggles for a definition of "What is a Jew?," we, as a nation, are approaching a national Yavok river in need of crossing as well-"forced" upon us by the computer age. Remember, if it catches our attention, it is a sign from Heaven regardless of what others think.

We live in very, very interesting times. Everything is moving so fast these days. There are so many influences, so many distractions. It is so very difficult to be simple these days, pure, and therefore, Torah-true. What does the year 5760/2000 hold for the Jewish people, and the world in general? No one quite knows for sure, but everyone wonders with mixed emotions, curiosity combined with an element of concern, that, for some, grows with each passing day.

What we have to realize is that it is the Yavok river that we are approaching, that awesome day that G-d "will answer us," after thousands of years of exile. What does it depend upon? It depends upon a willingness on the nation's part to confront the Eisav within us, to expunge ourselves of it, to fight with heavenly beings and man, and to prevail.

Then, and only then, will we finally assume the name "Yisroel," forever.



 






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