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Israel, Palestine, and the Ba’al Shem Tov

Jump to Rabbi Burt Jacobson’s Writing

Introduction by Rabbi David J. Cooper

A Radical Synagogue?

I first became acquainted with Rabbi Burt Jacobson in the early 1980’s when he was leading the Jewish affinity group in the Livermore Action group in the Bay Area. I was a legal observer with the National Lawyers Guild of Northern California. I met him outside Livermore Labs at the protests against the development of nuclear weapons. I recognized Burt as one of the coterie of leaders in Berkeley’s Aquarian Minyan to which I had shul-hopped a few years before in the 1970’s.  Sometime after we met, Burt put out feelers about joining him in putting together a “radical synagogue.” 

I had been very attached to my Jewishness but I was also a progressive activist and a dissenter concerning Israel’s policies. Burt’s invitation was the first intimation that I might be able to more thoroughly blend my Jewishness and my politics in a community where I could proudly bring up my children.

Burt had provided a vision of a spiritually-oriented politically progressive synagogue. While this vision of a shul had never previously occurred to me, I did have experience in organizing which I could apply to help actualize the Kehilla Community Synagogue Burt had envisioned.

And so began our partnership which has lasted 40 years with its ups and downs, but mostly ups. My children were indeed brought up in Kehilla’s milieu and spirit. And Kehilla raised me as well into a more integrated spiritual and political activist. Over the decades, I have watched many others brought into Kehilla’s orbit integrating or reintegrating their Jewish lives and their progressive politics. As for myself, it caused me eventually to pursue smicha and service as a rabbi. 

The Besht: Spiritual Politics? Political Spirituality?

As I have gotten to know Burt more and more over the years, as we have written liturgy together and prayed each other’s words, I have gotten to learn how completely intermeshed Burt’s spirituality and politics are. I am not even sure whether it is accurate to see it as a meshwork, implying that one is warp and the other is weft. What appears to be his politics emerges from a deep dvekut, his experience of his oneness with God. 

Under the responsibility imposed by this oneness, Rabbi Burt operates under the Torah’s directive to love the other same as oneself. And that “Other” is not really an ‘other’ at all. Burt quotes the Baal Shem Tov’s teaching that one should not interpret the directive as meaning to love the other the same as one would love oneself, but rather to love the other who is – from the perspective of the divine Mystery – indistinguishable from oneself. To do unto another what is hateful to oneself is therefore an act of ‘Self’harm to the larger Self. This is fundamental to his theologico/politico praxis.

While Burt quotes from these Chassidic teachings as if he were learning from them, I actually suspect that he was already there before his immersement in the teachings of the Besht. Rather, I believe that he was uplifted to discover Besht giving him the words to describe what Burt had already intuited on his own.

The I-and-Thou of Israel/Palestine

I believe that the writings of Martin Buber also gave Burt language for his compassionate empathy for the ostensible other. Buber came to his philosophical/spiritual concept of I-and-Thou at the very moment of Buber’s life in 1923 when he was publicly criticizing the Zionist leadership’s failure to understand and embrace the reality of the Palestinian Arabs. Buber never refers to the political situation in Palestine in I and Thou, and he is generally understood (perhaps misunderstood) as speaking only in regard to the relationship of individuals to each other. Burt, however, has for many years looked at the relationship of groups to each other through the lens of I-and-Thou especially in respect to Israel and Palestine. Buber’s approach expressed that to be fully in the presence of the other means to not perceive the other as a utility (or non-utility) for oneself, i.e. an I-It relationship, but rather that they have a full reality in themselves: a You rather than an It.

For several years, at Kehilla’s Erev Rosh Hashanah services, Burt would lead the whole congregation in a directed Metta/Lovingkindness meditation. He would carry us into a vision of the world, its different peoples, even its different species, and he directed us to extend love even to those who are seemingly different from ourself and even to those we experience as antagonists.

He despaired at the ways people in their righteous and justified indignation at oppression engage in hatred for the oppressors. Spiritually this led nowhere and he did not see where it was politically strategic either. What was necessary was a compassionate and critical reproach born from love rather than from scorn. He would often cite Leviticus 19 where the duty to reprove another was directly linked to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 

Beyond Zionism

I believe that this sense of the loving rebuke is key to Burt’s evolving relationship to Zionism. For many years he regarded himself as a Zionist but more akin to the Zionism of Buber, Ahad HaAm, and the Brit Shalom group in Mandatory Palestine that did not pin the national liberation of the Jewish people on a Jewish ethno-state as it emerged in 1948. Noam Pianko has observed that for several Jewish nationhood thinkers of the early 20th century, it was not that they left Zionism so much as Zionism had left them. [Pianko, Zionism and the Roads Not Taken: Rawidowicz, Kaplan, Kohn, Indiana University Press, 2010, p. 5] 

At a certain point, Burt could no longer call himself a Zionist if it meant the affirmation of a Jewish supremacist state whether in a two-state or one-state configuration. However, he could not call himself an anti-Zionist either because he understood the oppression and horror that brought about Zionism and the establishment of the State of Israel. In his immediate family, as a youngster in Ohio during World War II, he watched his mother working against her own despair in her efforts to make the Jewish community and the world aware of the extent of genocide being carried out by the Nazi regime. Burt understood how this and other traumas of the past configured and disfigured what became a Jewish state.

Never Again/If Not Now

For him then, the lesson of the Holocaust was a universal never again. And this was at the heart of his political/spiritual leftism. Jewishness could not serve oppression against Palestinians, but also not against women, LGBTQI, the unhoused, people of color, people with disabilities, both outside and within the Jewish community.

Burt leaves a legacy that will live for many years beyond him. This legacy may be particularly important in this period after the murders and kidnappings of October 7, 2023. At the time of this writing in the Spring of 2024 so much of the Jewish community around the world has justified for itself Israel’s mass killing of thousands upon thousands of Palestinians. It appears that even many Jewish spiritual leaders have developed a callus upon their hearts. We may have entered a new Jewish era where exclusive emphasis is given to Hillel’s first question: “If I am not for myself who will be?” 

Especially in this moment we need teachings such as Burt’s to bring us back to “If I am only for myself, what am I?” From Burt’s perspective, if we as Jews do not come back to a place of unconditional or non-transactional compassion, then we may lose a most significant element of our Jewishness. If we do not strive to reclaim it right now, then when?

Israel, Palestine, and the Ba’al Shem Tov

by Rabbi Burt Jacobson, Kehilla Community Synagogue

My final trip to Israel took place in 1968, soon after the Six Day War. At that time I was strongly considering making aliyah—immigrating to Israel—but something fateful happened that ultimately changed the direction of my life. I had been spending time in Eilat with my Israeli buddy Ya’akov, and when I returned to Jerusalem an American friend, Michael, took me to meet Arie Lova Eliav (1921-2010), a former liberal member of Prime Minister Golda Meir’s cabinet. 

Lova Eliav was extremely agitated. Pacing his living room, he told us what conditions were like in what Israel was calling “the liberated” territories. He had just spent six months in the West Bank getting to know the defeated Palestinians, and he was frightened by the conditions under which they were living. “We have to end this occupation,” he told us, “or it might mean the end of the Jewish state. But Golda won’t listen to me!” I was shaken by what he revealed to us, for what he was saying inferred that the Palestinian Arabs had a completely different narrative from that of the Israelis regarding the history of the struggle between the two peoples. When I returned to the U.S., I began to study the sordid account of the ongoing conflict, which had been going on since the 1920s. And the more that I read, the angrier I became. 

I was twelve years old in 1948 when David Ben Gurion declared itself a state, and I knew that the founding of Israel meant that despite the attempt by the Nazis to do away with the Jewish people, in the end our people had survived, and with the founding of Israel our people had a new lease on life in our ancient homeland. 

I later learned that Arabs who lived in the conquered territories and the rest of the Middle East posed a problem for they hated the Jews and wanted all the Jews driven from our ancient homeland. 

In college during the 1950s I had come to oppose nationalism, because I knew what a lethal danger it represented for the world, but I was certain that Zionism was completely different from other forms of nationalism. After all, didn’t Jews we value justice above all other moral values. And during my seminary years I had visited Israel several times including an academic year studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. And I was not alone in my certainties. All American Zionists bought into this misrepresentation, in large part, I believe, because of their fears abou the Arab threat and ignorance of the history of the conflict. But the fact was that most of the Zionists didn’t care at all about this people who had lived in Palestine for centuries. After all, didn’t the land of Israel belong to the Jewish people in ancient times? 

I later saw the historical research by Israel’s “New Historians,” showing how cruel the Zionists who later became the Israelis had treated the Palestinians. During the Israeli War for Independence hundreds of Palestinian villages had been destroyed and forests funded by American and other diaspora Jews planted in their place. The intent had been genocidal, for there was a strong desire to drive the Arabs out of the State of Israel.

But then, researching the historic accounts, I discovered that Israelis had not cared at all about the ways in which they were treating Arabs at all—the large number of people who had been living in Palestine for centuries. And in fact there was a great desire for the Arabs to “relocate” to other Arab countries, because the land of Israel belonged to the Jewish people from ancient times. Could the two peoples share the land?Hadn’t Martin Buber, an important Zionist thinker, argued for the creation of an inclusive community of Jews and Arabs living together in full equality. But his position, shared by a small group of his colleagues, had failed to get any traction in Israel.

My mentor and friend, Rabbi Everett Gendler had gone even farther than Buber. He took the radical position that nationalism itself was a kind of idolatry and that for Zionists, the state of Israel had replaced God. He believed that Jews should be able to live in Palestine together with Arabs as equals, and he vigorously opposed the idea of an exclusive Jewish state.

It became clear to me that the narratives of both peoples were indeed quite different, and that the stories taught in both societies were deeply flawed. The Arabs saw the massive Jewish incursion into Palestine as a form of Western colonialism meant to unjustly displace them. And yes, there was certainly truth in that account, but in fact the full story revealed a much more complicated narrative. 

What Arabs did not take account of was just why there was such a large influx of Jews into Palestine. The real culprit and the origin of Zionism was European antisemitism. In the nineteenth-century severe pogroms against Jews in Eastern Europe regularly forced Jews to flee for their lives. Some, like my own grandparents, immigrated to the U.S. But many European Jews saw the possibility of living a safer life in Palestine, their ancient homeland. In 1881 there was a major pogrom in Odessa during which Jews were murdered, Jewish women raped, and Jewish property looted. At the same time pogroms broke out in 160 different localities in Russia. And in 1882, just after the devastating pogroms, 7000 young Jews emigrated to Palestine. And this calamity took place before the founding of Zionism! 

But the tragedy brought about by antisemitism continued, for when the Nazis rose to power in the 1930s, they enacted their plan for a “final solution” to the Jewish problem, entirely ridding Europe of Jews. Most Western countries, including the U.S., agreed to take in only a small number of Jews fleeing from Europe. As living conditions in Germany worsened, 60,000 Jews from that nation alone entered Palestine. And many or most of these refugees had not even been Zionists before the war. And then, following the establishment of Israel in 1948, 140,000 Holocaust survivors entered the new nation. The Labor government tried to limit the number of Jews entering Palestine to avoid deepening the conflict, but their effort failed. And thus the massive but unavoidable incursion of Jews made the tragedy of the conflict between Jews and Arabs unavoidable. This seeming invasion antagonized Palestinian Arabs, but where else were Jews fleeing from Europe supposed to go? 

My study of this history turned me into a reluctant non-Zionist, and years later when I started Kehilla Community Synagogue, I made it clear that the congregation would stand for a two-state solution. Over the years Kehilla’s Middle East Peace Committee engaged in a great deal of educational work within the congregation, and Kehilla’s educators developed a curriculum for teaching pre-Bar/Bat Mitzvah students about the issue. But for decades I continued to maintain my anger and disappointment over what Israel had become, writing and preaching about the necessity of justice for the Palestinians, as the Torah proclaimed: “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” (Deuteronomy 16:20)

My main spiritual Jewish teacher had become Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of the eighteenth-century religious movement called Hasidism. Among his many teachings he taught unconditional love for Jews, even those who broke Jewish laws that required common decency. His teachings called for empathy and compassion, even for wrongdoers. This was something that I myself needed to learn and so I developed what I called my Unitive Love Practice. Practicing this daily for twenty years altered my understanding of my responsibilities. The Unitive Love Practice had led me to a kind of universal love and compassion that included all people, even those who engaged in wrongdoing.

The Besht taught the mitzvah in the book of Leviticus about love of one’s neighbor as a basic imperative of Judaism: “Just as you love yourself, so love your neighbor.” (Lev. 19) The real significance of this teaching, he explained, hinges on the meaning of the Hebrew word, “k’mo’khah.” Usually k’mo’khah has been translated “as yourself,” but the Ba’al Shem renders it “exactly like yourself.” Thus he translated the Hebrew: “And you shall love your neighbor who is exactly like yourself.” In other words, even though human beings have distinct bodies, minds, and personalities, we all share a single spiritual essence. I believe that this intimate kinship obligates us to directly care for others in exactly the same way that we care for ourselves, because in essence we are all one. At the heart of Judaism’s spiritual activism, as I came to see it then, is the notion of taking responsibility for others through acts of justice, compassion and caring, because we are all one.

Before the modern era Jews in Eastern Europe lived in their own communities. This was due to both due to Jewish preference and also because of the predominance of antisemitism; thus, Jews tended to recognize only other Jews as their true neighbors. Because of this Jewish spiritual/moral activism was directed primarily or only toward aiding other Jews. But for liberal and progressive Jews in the modern era the open society in which we live has altered our understanding of who our neighbors are. We not only embrace other Jews, we also embrace people outside the Jewish community. For aren’t all peoples today neighbors in a global human society?

The Ba’al Shem believed that everything that happens in the world is ordained by God. He held that all evil, including the evil carried out by Christians against his own people came from Gevurah, God’s harsh and destructive side. Because of this he never judged the enemies of the Jews for what they were doing to his people, nor did he agree with the view found in the Torah that the suffering we experience is punishment for our sins. Instead he would attempt to use his shamanic powers and skills to attempt to annul the divine decrees that he believed were bringing about the violence against his people. 

The Ba’al Shem’s view then implicates the Divine in human evil-making. And as I have written elsewhere in this book it seems to me that this view of God’s role in human wrongdoing led the master to the great compassion and love that he had for people, and even for sinners. It also explains why, like the author of the biblical book of Job, he condemned the ancient inclination to blame people for their own suffering. The Ba’al Shem also advised his disciples not to pray for themselves alone because all misery was in reality the suffering of the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence. Thus, in my view, the grief experienced by both Israelis and Palestinians is in reality a part of universal suffering. Out of this worldview, then, I concluded that we must pray for the alleviation of all human adversity.

I know that many readers would not resonate with this view. We are so conditioned to blame people themselves for every tragedy that occurs in society, but the Ba’al Shem opposed all judgmentalism. I myself understand the issue in terms of evolution—or regression. In the course of our long biological development our species has generated a great deal of novelty, enormous creativity and colossal bellicosity. The aggression of one nation toward another is, of course, fueled by fear—but not by fear alone. We possess a huge instinctual drive for aggression and conquest, something that we share with our primate cousins. In the course of our evolution, though, we have added our technological refinement of weaponry and war-making, most especially in the modern era. But in addition to instinct there are also the effects of historical trauma, which causes us to act out of our woundedness rather than our free will and restraint.  

I came to apply this notion to the Middle East conflict, and this understanding has allowed me to step away from blaming either Israel or the Palestinians. Both peoples are acting not only out of nonrational instinctual motivation and fear, but also out of the traumas that they have experienced or inherited. And, as Neurologist Robert Scaer, writes: “(Trauma) . . . freezes us in a past event that thereafter dictates our entire perception of reality. The past event is everpresent, awaiting its chance to intrude on our daily life based on the subtlest of cues. Locked in the crucible of terror created by the traumatic experience, we dance like a puppet on strings controlled by a manic and repetitive puppeteer. Our thoughts, our choices, our values, our behavior, even the control of our bodies seem to be governed not by conscious intent but by some inner tyrant that operates with an unknown and sinister agenda.” (quoted from Scaer’s book, The Trauma Spectrum: Hidden Wounds and Human Resiliency

My position, then, derives not only from the views of the Ba’al Shem Tov, but also from biology and psychology. Consequently, I am convinced that we do not need to hate Israel in order to aid Palestinians; nor do we need to hate Palestinians for the ways in which they have attacked and injured our fellow Jews. It is instinct trauma that keep the cycle of vengeance going. We do have to recognize, though, that Israelis have a great deal more power than Palestinians, and have refused to allow the formation of a Palestinian state or recognizing Palestinians as equal citizens of a bi-national state. Because of Israel’s power, it needs to take the unilateral step of ending the occupation. Whether it is actually able to do this or not is, at this time, unknown.

Despite all of this, however, there are signs of hope. Some years ago I read Sheila Katz’ courageous book, Connecting With the Enemy: A Century of Palestinian-Israeli Joint Nonviolence. Katz shows that over the past century there have been more than fifteen hundred political and economic alliances between Jews and Palestinians. The members of these courageous partnerships, many of whom have lost members of their families in the conflict, have come to understand and develop a remarkable empathy for each other’s outlooks. And these alliances have endured despite condemnation by their own societies. As Katz writes:

When Arabs and Jews found ways to meet despite own well-earned fears and fury, they were not wild idealists but sober prophets. They warned us time and again that if we didn’t act differently, if we didn’t take responsibility in difficult but necessary ways, if we didn’t compromise, if we didn’t overcome the compulsion to blame, rage, and take revenge for genuine injustice, then violence would escalate, more children would die, and security and freedom would elude their grasp. They were right every time . . . It is thus possible that these joint nonviolent initiatives were not in fact missing peace but were the missing piece of a revolution in the making. Perhaps our descendants will observe in retrospect that joint nonviolence hastened the cessation of hostilities, began to address inequalities, and helpedusher in a just peace. [Endnote: Shiela H. Katz, Connecting With the Enemy: a Century of Palestinian-Israeli Joint Nonviolence, University of Texas Press, Austin, 2016, pp. 202-3] 

I see these good faith partnerships between Jews and Arabs as spiritual in nature, as the Ba’al Shem Tov states:

When we love our fellow humans as ourselves,

we are actually loving the Holy One,

for every person is part of God.

It is February of 2024, and for months I have been experiencing deep heartbreak over the war between Hamas and Israel. While I was horrified by the vile acts of Hamas, Israel’s relentless and vengeful attack on Gaza is extinguishing the lives of countless Palestinian citizens, many of them women and children. 

And yet even in the present violent climate there are still Israelis and Palestinians who befriend one another and advocate for nonviolence. On February 10th, 2024 I received an email from American Friends of Combatants for Peace, an egalitarian bi-national grassroots alliance of Palestinians and Israelis who are committed to nonviolent action against the Israeli occupation and all forms of violence. The email contained an article from the New York Times, by Adam Sella dated February 21, 2024.

The reporter writes that Jamil Qassas, the president of the Palestinian side of Combatants for Peace—one of the truly important alliances between the two peoples—had led Palestinians in clashes with Israeli forces during the first intifada. Working in Israel, however, he later concluded that that not all Israelis were enemies, and he publically renounced the use of violence. He told Adam Sella that even in the current struggle Combatants for Peace maintains its antiwar stance, and that nonviolence remains a basic principle for both Palestinians and Israelis in the organization. 

Chen Alon, one of the co-founders of Combatants for Peace, is a former Israeli military officer who refused to serve in 2002 over his objections to the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. Alon still recalls the fear he felt at early meetings in the West Bank when a handful of former Israeli soldiers first met with Palestinian combatants who had also renounced violence. Now he admitted, nearly 20 years later, he is not immune to the passion aroused by the October 7th attack. “When I saw the atrocities done to my people,” he said, “of course I experienced difficult emotions of vengeance.” But that very day his friend Jamil Qassas called to ask after his safety, and Alon felt grounded again. 

“We would talk about the most difficult things,” Mr. Qassas said, “but at least we stayed together and kept going.” Despite the resistance they face in their respective societies they each cling to hope that when the current conflict finally ends, they will become the infrastructure, the community upon which their peoples joint life will be built.  

In 2017, the fiftieth anniversary of the Six Day War, I began to wonder what more Kehilla could do to help bring about the peace initiatives that have been happening in Israel and Palestine. It was at that time that I discovered an initiative of a church in the Bay Area, Buena Vista Methodist Church in Alameda. In the early 2000’s a member of the church had beeen spending time in Palestine, and during his trip he visited the Church of the Nativity, a basilica located in Bethlehem and the declared birthplace of Jesus. In that church he experienced an epiphany: his church was to aid and support a Palestinian village. When he returned to California, this man went to the Justice Committee of Buena Vista Church, saying that as devoted Christians they had to do something in behalf of the Palestinians. After many discussions, the church’s liaison to the West Bank recommended that the church partner with the village of Wadi Foquin.

Since that time the Buena Vista has developed a powerful relationship with the village. They have worked to provide financial assistance for projects supporting the economic survival of the village. This began with modest fundraising for beehives to help offset damage inflicted on agricultural life by settlers from Betar Illit, the Israeli settlement nearby. The church also provides young adults in the village with job skills. It has organized home-based activities for women, and it has repaired a community center. Members of the church have also made annual visits to the village. Another church-supported project has been the construction of a soccer field, built on land threatened for confiscation by the Israeli authorities. The field serves as a playground for children and youth, while sending the message to the world that life will not be denied to the people of this village.

I was truly inspired by the work of this church in the way that its members were carrying out the biblical commandment of loving one’s neighbor as oneself, and it immediately came to me that a progressive synagogue like Kehilla could engage in this kind of spiritual activism as well. This, then, was the origin of Face-to-Face, a working group at Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont, California. Of course this kind of work will not create a political solution to the conflict, but it has made the members our committee’s relationship with Palestinians existentially real and personal. 

The main activity of Face-to-Face is our allyship with a Palestinian village located in Area “C” in the West Bank. We are supporting the villagers in their efforts to survive and create sustainable lives for themselves. We are also in active contact with activist organizations of Israelis and Palestinians who are struggling in behalf of Palestinian rights. Currently, rabbis and spiritual leaders from Kehilla have been visiting the village, and we have been raising money for their many needs—$40,000 since we began. We see our work as reparations for the ways in which the people of this village have been and are continuing to be intimidated and brutalized by Israelis. We meet regularly with the activist leader of the village by Zoom, and have come to trust his intentions. Two of our rabbis and a number of laypeople have visited the village.

The Hamas-Israeli War has made the lives of these villagers even more precarious. They are attempting to survive while being harassed in terrible ways by members of the nearby Israeli settlement as well as by the I.D.F. They fully appreciate our efforts in their behalf.  Having come to know the major activist in the village in person via Zoom, I am heartbroken by what is happening to them. At the same time I am deeply concerned about the life and safety of my own stepdaughter, a citizen of Israel who favors the incursion into Gaza, whatever the cost to its citizens.

At this point I consider myself a failed idealist. But to tell the truth I would rather live with the dreamers than to accept the so-called realism of those who believe that hatred, violence, and warfare are the natural artifacts of our instinctual makeup, and that there is no real way to restrain the collective egotism of nation-states. At the same time I know that if there is to be a real solution it will likely be a long time coming.

At the same time I believe in the absolute necessity of a ceasefire, a movement that is, thank God, gaining wide-range support across the U. S.

I want to conclude this paper with a Hasidic teaching that Martin Buber discovered, one that he published in three of his books because he thought it so vital and important. The question being addressed is how a spiritually-oriented person gets to mercy and forgiveness, when what he really wants is vengeance? 

Rabbi Shmelke HaLevi Horowitz of Nikolburg (1726-1778) a second generation Hasidic rebbe, and the mentor of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev. A disciple came to him with a question.

“Rebbe, we are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves. But how can I do this if my neighbor has wronged me?”

“My son, you must understand the mitzvah in the right way: Love your neighbor as someone who you yourself are.

“All human souls are one. Each is a spark of the original human soul. And that soul is innate in all human souls, just as your soul is innate in all the parts of your body. Now it might happen by mistake that your hand will strike you. What would you do? Take a stick and chastise your hand because of its ignorance—and so increase your pain? . . . . Well, it is the same if your neighbor, who is one soul with you wrongs you because of his lack of understanding. If you punish him you only hurt yourself.”

Silence.

“But Rebbe, if I see a man who is sinful before God, how can I love him?”

“Don’t you know, my son, that first human soul came out of the very essence of God, and that every soul is in truth, a part of God? And will you have no mercy when you see that one of God’s holy sparks is lost in a maze and almost stifled?

This kind of realization represents the power of spiritual enlightenment. 

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