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Tuesday
Oct212014

THE RETURNING SOUL WHO IS RETURNING SOULS

The fascinating life story of RNoam Yisroel Harpaz can fill several books, from his childhood when he swam against the tide until today, when he is a maggid shiur and a mashpia. * About the yechidus which he did not know how to end. * The Av Beis Din who suddenly recognized him and said, “I am your student.” * The work he did on yoga and meditation with the help of rabbanim and mashpiim until the Rebbe stopped him with his ruach hakodesh.

Interview by Nosson Avrohom

It was a number of years ago that R’ Noam Yisroel Harpaz had occasion to be at the Beis Din HaRabbanim in Yerushalayim. One of his students, an immigrant from the CIS, wanted to get married and he had to obtain the beis din’s affirmation as to his being Jewish. R’ Harpaz, who knew the bachur’s parents, was there to help him and to testify on his behalf.

Silence fell upon the room when the three dayanim entered. As is customary, the Av Beis Din, R’ Yisachar Dovber Hagar, asked R’ Harpaz to identify himself while showing his ID card.

A few moments passed and then R’ Hagar looked up from the papers in front of him, stared at R’ Harpaz and said that his name rang a bell and he could not figure out why. R’ Harpaz looked at R’ Hagar and couldn’t remember either. “As far as I know, this is the first time we are meeting,” he replied, a bit puzzled.

But R’ Hagar was unwilling to give up and he said to R’ Harpaz that after the halachic proceedings, he would try again to remember from where he knew the name Noam Yisroel Harpaz.

When the session was over, R’ Hagar remembered. “I am one of your students,” he exclaimed suddenly. The other dayanim, as well as R’ Harpaz, were taken aback by this pronouncement.

“When I get home after a long day at the beis din, I am too exhausted to learn inside a text. I came up with a way that I could continue learning. I heard about the phone system ‘Nichayeg V’Nishma’ and I would call the number and listen to shiurim in Chassidus. Just recently I finished listening to your series of shiurim.

R’ Hagar was happy to meet R’ Harpaz in person and the two of them continued to keep in touch. They have met, at R’ Hagar’s initiative, and discussed topics in Chassidus. This close relationship which began by divine providence continued for a long time until the sad day, a year ago, when R’ Harpaz heard of R’ Hagar’s passing.

R’ Harpaz has had numerous stories like this. Some people stop him on the street and some call him directly to ask questions and to consult with him after listening to or attending one of the many shiurim in Chassidus that he gives. For thirty years now he’s been traveling; in the morning you can meet him in yeshiva in Yerushalayim, in the afternoon at an army base somewhere, and in the evening at a Chabad house in the Yerushalayim area.

Wherever he goes he farbrengs or gives a shiur in Tanya or the Rebbe’s sichos and maamarim. He also teaches deep hemshechim; it all depends on the audience, the age and intellectual level. His speaking style is articulate, captivating, knowledgeable, and most importantly, clear and illuminating to the broad array of listeners who flock to his shiurim.

R’ Harpaz does not limit himself to one sector; his shiurim are successful with those who grew up in religious homes as well as with those who are recent arrivals. 

Before Rosh HaShana, we went to the Maaleh Zeitim neighborhood of Yerushalayim to personally meet the mashpia who is responsible for hundreds of baalei t’shuva over the years. The conversation was fascinating and could have continued for many more hours if he hadn’t had to attend another farbrengen in a yeshiva in Tel Aviv.

YEARS OF SEARCHING

R’ Harpaz’s life story is no less fascinating. It was a long and winding road that he took from when he was a boy growing up in a typical, Israeli, Ashkenazi family in Givatayim, until he reached where he is today.

“I had heard about Judaism mainly from the radio or when I saw religious Jews on television. At home we were not traditional and I naively thought that those who were traditional were few in number and would soon disappear. I remember that we built a sukka but I know that it was more suitable for a children’s clubhouse than as a real sukka.

“Even if we kept certain mitzvos, it was only because of the experience. My parents sent me to a local public school, but from a very young age I felt that I was different than my peers. I was a child who broke with convention. I was unwilling for people to lead me to thinking a certain way without that way being perfectly clear to me. I searched for the depth in everything.

“From a very young age I began feeling an emptiness and I searched for p’nimius. I was a child who thought and read a tremendous amount. From a very young age I felt a strong need for meaning and truth by which I could live. I was unwilling to be like the rest of the fish that swim with the current.”

The fact that his mother worked as a librarian in the city library was good for him since he was able to borrow three or four books a day which he finished within hours and could do the same again the next day.

“My search began in the enormous investment I made in reading and acquiring knowledge. I read all kinds of literature, science, history, biographies, but I was mainly drawn to reading about mysticism.”

When he turned fourteen he felt that reading alone was not satisfying his hunger for some as-yet undefined dimension and he joined a group of youths who were also searching. They would meet and listen to psychedelic music and smoke various substances.

Then he discovered the world of vegetarianism and natural healing. He avidly read books on the subject and was a member of naturalist forums. Twice a year for several weeks he lived only on fruit and vegetable juices in order to cleanse his body of toxins and metals. After a while he registered to learn at the Kfar HaYarok boarding school.

“While I studied there I became acquainted with yoga and meditation and heard about the meditation center in Ramat Gan which was run by disciples of an Indian guru who immigrated to Britain. I visited the center regularly and spent hours on meditation and various yoga exercises. The lingo of the people who ran the place, about the inner dimension and the world beyond ours, spoke to me and I was sure I had reached what my soul yearned for.

“However, as with the earlier stations along my way, the same thing happened with meditation. Even though I thought I had attained the highest levels of understanding and training, I decided to leave the center the minute they began including personality worship of their guru. Without knowing what avoda zara is, I felt that I did not relate to this ceremony and I did not want to be a part of it. The ‘punishment’ for this was that they did not register me as a member in the cult.

“I stopped visiting the center but did not drop my involvement in mysticism. I continued doing meditation and yoga. The staff at Kfar HaYarok, who saw that the academic part of school was not interesting me much, also decided, at the end of my second year there, to recommend another place. I went to Ankori High School in Tel Aviv which I also soon left in order to work at the Tel Aviv zoo.”

When he was sixteen and a half, Noam bought a bus ticket to Nuweiba in the Sinai.

“Back then, those who wanted quiet would go down there. I thought that maybe there, in the Sinai, I would be able to soothe the inner turmoil that I felt, a turmoil that I did not know how to assuage. I spent a number of weeks there doing nothing. I spent day and night staring at the blue skies, wanting to find inner peace but to no avail. I decided to go back home.”

SUDDEN CHANGE

“My younger brother was almost bar mitzva. The preparations for his bar mitzva were different than for mine. My mother’s friend brought her to a shiur given by Mrs. Luba Garelik of Kfar Chabad and that is how she found a teacher to prepare my brother for his bar mitzva, R’ Chaim Tzadok, a shliach in Ramat Chein in B’nei Brak. He would come to our home once a week and prepare him for his bar mitzva.

“At the time, I was sitting at home doing nothing. R’ Tzadok wasn’t fazed by my appearance and whenever he came, he tossed some Chassidic lines at me that were like riddles, but his simcha captivated me.

“One of the lines stuck with me and shook me up without my understanding why. A Rebbe is a Rosh B’nei Yisroel, the leader of the Jewish people. He said it and left. I really liked R’ Tzadok.

“On Shabbos Parshas Ki Seitzei 5737, my brother had his aliya l’Torah. Early that morning, R’ Tzadok knocked at our door, shocking us all with his presence, as he had walked nearly an hour from his home. He urged us all to get ready for the davening in the nearby shul which was about to begin.

“After quickly getting ourselves ready, we all went together to the shul. R’ Tzadok seated us on the eastern wall and gave us siddurim. He showed me what page we were on and I began to read. I can only describe what happened then as no less than enlightenment. It was something that could not be explained rationally. I began reading the words of the t’filla and felt enormously connected. Each additional word that I uttered was said with tremendous d’veikus. 

“After the davening I told R’ Tzadok that I wanted to go to Kfar Chabad, the only religious place that I knew of, and that I wanted to learn how to be religious. When my mother met me outside the shul, she told me that the women in shul were amazed by my davening.”

On Motzaei Shabbos there was a bar mitzva celebration. One of the guests was Mrs. Garelik who came with her husband. The feeling that Noam had experienced during Shacharis had only gotten stronger and he told the Lubavitcher couple that he was interested in Judaism and wanted to go to Kfar Chabad. 

“Mrs. Garelik was happy to hear this and the following Shabbos I was the guest of the mashpia, R’ Zalman Gopin and his wife Rivka of Kfar Chabad. I went for a week and stayed on.”

That was at the end of 5737. R’ Gopin was mekarev him. In the morning, they would go together to yeshiva and in the evening they would go home together. 

“For a week I was hesitant but then something happened that made me realize that this is my place forever. My chavrusa for Chassidus was R’ Yitzchok Elishevitz and we learned the kuntres ‘U’Maayan MiBeis Hashem’ together. When we got to the part that talks about levels of inanimate, vegetation, animal, and human, it says that the mashpia is above the mekabel so if I receive enjoyment and satisfaction from animals, I am lower than them.

“I loved animals and the message seemed to be that I was choosing to receive chayus from a lower level. R’ Elishevitz did not try to soften the message. It shook me up. I thought about this a lot and it led me to the conclusion that this is a system of thought that is structured and deep, far more than I thought and understood.”

After completing the maamer, Noam Yisroel left the yeshiva building and strolled through the pathways of the Kfar as he thought over what he had learned. He knew that he had reached a moment of truth and that in order to be a Chassid it wasn’t enough to take a peek; he had to completely give himself over. 

“After an hour of wandering around, I went to the Gopin house. Mrs. Gopin realized what I was going through and she served me a plate of pretzels and a cup of l’chaim. Then I lay down to sleep and the next morning, when R’ Gopin woke me up for Chassidus, I remember that I felt I was already someone completely different.”

OPEN RUACH HA’KODESH

That morning, Noam Yisroel decided that he was choosing the Rebbe and Chassidus and he went to learn in yeshiva like any other bachur.

“That was the end of Elul. R’ Gopin went to the Rebbe and I spent Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur in Shikun Chabad in Yerushalayim. The second half of Tishrei, Sukkos and Simchas Torah, I spent with the Garelik family in Kfar Chabad. At the beginning of the winter semester in yeshiva they arranged a bed for me in the dorm and chavrusos. R’ Menachem Brod taught me Gemara and R’ Moshe Winner taught me Chassidus. I was very drawn to Chassidus and for two years I learned a lot of Chassidus from all the Chabad Rebbeim.”

Before he wrote his letter of hiskashrus to the Rebbe, he wrote a letter in which he asked the Rebbe to arouse great mercy on one of his friends, a request that was fulfilled in an astonishing manner.

“I had a good friend whom I learned with when I was in school. Despite the upheavals I had gone through, we had kept closely in touch. I tried to be mekarev him but was unsuccessful. He laughed at what I had done which is why I decided to write to the Rebbe about him. Just two days after writing the letter, he called me and said that he had a tremendous urge to go to the yeshiva in Kfar Chabad and to join me.

“R’ Eliyahu Landau, who taught in the yeshiva, questioned me about many topics having to do with yoga and meditation. He told me that his father, R’ Yaakov, had received letters from the Rebbe on the subject. The Rebbe viewed it as a medical treatment and wanted people knowledgeable in the field to remove the avoda zara aspects of meditation and leave just the curative elements that could help people. I was even asked to go to his father’s house and he showed me a folder of letters from the Rebbe on the subject.

“The Rebbe’s wishes in this regard reached R’ Yitzchok Ginsburgh of Kfar Chabad and he got me involved. A few times a week, in the evenings after s’darim in yeshiva, I would visit his house and tell him about different approaches in meditation and he would put it into terms of s’firos and kabbalistic levels.

“It was 12 Tammuz and the Rebbe would be farbrenging. Together with all the bachurim, we went to Beit Shazar in order to hear the broadcast. Since I did not understand Yiddish, I decided to use the time to write my first letter of hiskashrus to the Rebbe. I wrote a letter about everything I had experienced until I came to yeshiva, and added about the project I was doing with R’ Ginsburgh on meditation. I had a few questions about meditation and asked the Rebbe to respond to them.

“When I finished the letter I put it in my pocket. I planned on mailing it the next day. My friend Y. Y. Butman regularly recorded the broadcasts and afterward we would gather in a side room and he would translate it for those who did not understand it. We did that this time too. When he got to the last sicha and translated it, I was in utter shock. My face turned white.

“The Rebbe explained that every good thing in the world is sourced in Torah and added that a medicine must be given by a doctor because he knows how to adjust it to the patient. When a healthy person takes medicine, it is harmful, not helpful. The Rebbe went on to say that this is also true of meditation. It could help those with emotional problems but hurt those who are healthy. The Rebbe then said a line that stunned me. ‘There are people who are trying to develop meditation according to kabbala and as such are trying to adapt the Torah to people.’ The Rebbe negated this outright. I heard this and realized that there was no purpose in sending my letter for I had already received an answer that responded to each of my questions.

“I asked all those present to wait. I took the letter out of my pocket, told them when I had written it, and read the questions that I had on meditation. This event greatly connected me to the Rebbe.”

Speaking of the times when farbrengens were broadcast, R’ Harpaz tells of the days of great excitement about the Rebbe and Moshiach. 

“We would wake up for the broadcasts and the discussion among us bachurim was that this time, the Rebbe would begin the maamer with ‘Anochi Melech HaMoshiach.’”

During his second year in yeshiva, Noam Yisroel developed a good relationship with the Yerushalmi mashpia, R’ Moshe Weber. 

“I spent a Shabbos with him and we connected. He called the rosh yeshiva, R’ Yaakov Katz, and asked permission to host me every Shabbos. For months he paid for my trip to Yerushalayim to visit him for Shabbos.”

Toward the end of the second year, R’ Weber decided that Noam Yisroel was ready for a shidduch.

“Our first meeting was in the Weber home in Yerushalayim and the second took place at the home of Sudakewitz in Kfar Chabad. During our second meeting, we already contacted the secretariat to ask for a bracha. After less than half an hour, we received the Rebbe’s bracha and consent and the shidduch was sealed.”

The wedding took place on 18 Elul 5739 in Kfar Chabad.

SHIURIM ON A GLOBAL SCALE

During the first three years of their marriage, the couple lived in Kfar Chabad and R’ Harpaz learned in the local kollel.

At the same time, he took a job teaching in the yeshiva for baalei t’shuva founded by R’ Zimroni Tzik of Bat Yam. 

“That was my first attempt at giving classes. In the morning I continued learning in the kollel and in the evening I would give shiurim in Chassidus in yeshiva. When I returned home every evening, I would visit R’ Gopin and repeat the shiur that I gave in Derech Mitzvosecha and he would make his comments. I had the privilege of his investing hundreds of hours of guidance in me and teaching me how to prepare a shiur properly.”

Since then, it’s all history. R’ Harpaz is one of the top lecturers in Chabad today. His students, who learned Chassidus from him over the years, number in the many thousands, especially since his shiurim were put online and are heard all over the world.

“I recently met R’ Chaim Brod, one of the shluchim in Mexico, who came to visit his father-in-law, R’ Dovid Offen in Beitar Ilit. He told me that a short while previously, he had visited 770 and went on mivtzaim to the places he had visited when he had been on K’vutza. One of the stores belongs to an Israeli with whom the bachurim were in touch over the years. They schlepped him to farbrengens and did a lot with him, but for some reason, he did not make spiritual progress.

“On that visit, he went to see him and the man was wearing a yarmulke and tzitzis. He was pleasantly surprised and asked him about the change. The man said he had recently discovered an internet site with shiurim on Tanya and once he began listening to them regularly, his mindset changed. 

“R’ Brod asked him to show him the site and who was giving the shiurim. They were the shiurim I gave in Heichal Menachem in Yerushalayim which were uploaded to the web.

“I recently davened in Shikun Chabad in Yerushalayim. A bachur came over to me to thank me. It turned out he had been in some third world country on Merkos Shlichus and had to teach Tanya. It was the first time he had to do so and he looked around online and found our shiurim and that is what helped him prepare.

“I received another heartwarming reaction from a Lubavitcher who has a senior position in a Chabad organization. He had learned with me in yeshiva and wanted to thank me. ‘Thanks to you,’ he said, ‘I began learning and understanding Tanya.’ He is also a regular listener to the shiurim and he felt he had to contact me and say thanks.”

THE POLICEMEN
AT THE DOOR

All this teaching of Chassidus apparently disturbed the sitra achra, for one day, R’ Harpaz found himself under criminal investigation because of his shiurim.

“There is a wonderful fellow by the name of Eliyahu Peretz. He started a pirate radio station and looked for material to broadcast. Back then, Heichal Menachem had produced a CD with shiurim I gave there. He bought the CD and played it on his station.

“At some point, the police discovered the existence of this radio station and closed it down. Then they knocked at my door and said I was being held for interrogation. I explained to the investigator that they were mistaken because my shiurim are disseminated worldwide and I did not sit in his studio and give a shiur. I was quickly released but to my great surprise, a few weeks later I received a summons to court.

“The day I was told about the court case I visited Nachalat Har Chabad. Someone who learned with me in yeshiva wanted to thank me for the shiurim he had heard on that same pirate station, which he enjoyed tremendously and which enabled him to better understand the daily Tanya. I thought, ‘Perhaps this is the price I have to pay to spread the wellsprings to this extent.’”

As someone involved in kiruv for many years, what is the best way to be mekarev people?

To look at the p’nimius of the person in front of you, not at his externals. Another thing is not to be afraid to say the truth.

Forty years ago, after I returned from the Sinai to my parents’ house in Givatayim, I passed through the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv. There was a t’fillin stand there all the time, belonging to R’ Zalman Levin a”h and R’ Avrohom Lisson. I looked like a tourist with dreadlocks and earrings, which was not widespread in the country at that time. One of them approached me and asked me in English whether I was Jewish. I said no and continued on my way. The reality is that two weeks later I was learning in yeshiva in Kfar Chabad and I stood at that very same stand to offer people t’fillin …

Sometimes, we see someone who seems so far, but he is actually quite close and perhaps, within a short time, he will look like us.

Share something with us about Tishrei.

The change in my entire outlook about Tishrei occurred in 5746. We were living in Emanuel and that year, the Rebbe said a maamer on 17 Kislev, “Margila B’Pumei d’Rava.” In the beginning of the maamer the Rebbe quotes the Rebbe Rayatz as saying that simple people say T’hillim with tears. When the Rebbe said this, he stopped and commented, “Obviously, all the avoda must be done with simcha.”

Since then, my entire way of thinking changed and that includes the avoda of t’shuva in the month of Tishrei. Everything must be done with simcha. Right after this interview I am starting a series of shiurim in Tel Aviv, the topic of which is t’shuva with simcha. Merirus (bitterness) was fine for earlier generations. The Rebbe said it was good for that time but today we no longer have the ability to do t’shuva with merirus because we are afraid that the merirus will lead to atzvus (sadness). The avoda of t’shuva in our generation is like the avoda of Shabbos which needs to be done with simcha and we know that on Shabbos there is no sadness at all.

Since Chassidus places an emphasis on hisbonenus (contemplative meditation), it’s not enough to say this; we need to incorporate this into our meditative contemplation and think about it.

You talk a lot about Moshiach in your shiurim and farbrengens. Some claim that when speaking to the “outside” you need to tone down the message. In your experience, what is the best way to talk about Moshiach?

The truth is that Moshiach is something readily accepted today. Last week I farbrenged at a Yarchei Kalla that took place at the Chassidic library in Yerushalayim. R’ Yisroel Lipsker, R’ Ron Kolton and I farbrenged and it was a very special event. We spoke openly about the Rebbe as Moshiach and chai v’kayam.

A lot of Poilishe Chassidim were present. After the farbrengen, one of the attendees came over to me and said, “I feel that the world exists only for Moshiach. Now I understand the meaning of the pasuk “and the spirit of G-d hovered over the water – this is the spirit of Moshiach.”

People from the “outside,” and it makes no difference from which group, readily accept the subject of Moshiach. When you learn Chassidus, your yearning for Moshiach only intensifies. Chassidus reveals to us the good in everything in creation and Moshiach is the perfection of goodness. If you get a taste of Chassidus, you want Moshiach because it’s the ultimate fulfillment of Chassidus.

THE REBBE’S SMILE

R’ Harpaz often received dollars from the Rebbe and spent time in 770. In Tishrei 5741 he had yechidus. That first time that he went to see the Rebbe is etched in his memory.

“I arrived at 770 on Erev Yom Kippur. My wife could not join me because she was pregnant. When it was time for my yechidus, I was unsure about what to ask the Rebbe.

“A long time earlier I had read two stories, one about the Chassid who had been rich and had lost his money and had had yechidus by the Alter Rebbe and complained about his situation. The Rebbe told him: You talk only about what you need, but not about what you are needed for! The other story was about R’ Isaac of Homil who had yechidus with the Alter Rebbe when he was 17 and after submitting his note (which said, “How can the lowly soul that toils, cleave to the Cause of all Causes”) the Rebbe made the unusual move of leaving his room and showing the Chassidim how a note to the Rebbe is written.

“These two stories were on my mind and I did not know what to ask and how to ask. I finally wrote down my name and briefly asked for success in everything. During the yechidus I mentioned my wife’s name and her mother’s name. My wife was orphaned at the age of two and was raised by her father who remarried. I wrote down the name of her biological mother.

“When the Rebbe read her name, he asked me what her mother’s name is. I said, Chana, but it was like the Rebbe did not hear me and he asked again and again. When I repeated the same answer, he stopped asking and made a mark with his pencil and began to bless me. I remember that the first bracha was for us to have children and there were other brachos. I was so focused on what the Rebbe was saying that I did not say “amen” at the end.

“A bizarre situation ensued in which the Rebbe finished the brachos, thus ending the yechidus, but I remained standing there. When I realized what had happened, it was already too late. The Rebbe was looking at me, the secretary was opening the door because he wanted other people to have their turn, and I didn’t know how to extricate myself. What should I do – say a delayed amen and leave? 

“The Rebbe then took out a paper and wrote something while I stood in the middle of the room and didn’t know what to do with myself. A minute or two passed and the Rebbe looked up. He smiled a smile I will never forget and maybe it was worth it all for that. Then he blessed me with a line I will never forget, “Every addition in Torah study will lead to an addition in Hashem’s blessing.” I said amen and quickly made my exit.

“The Rebbe’s last sentence is what gets me to focus on learning Torah and giving shiurim. The Rebbe guided me in that direction. By the way, when I told about the Rebbe’s repeatedly asking me about my wife’s mother’s name, they told me that in fact you write the name of the woman who raised her and not the biological mother.”

 

THE REBBE PAYS THE BILLS

In addition to giving fascinating shiurim, R’ Harpaz is known as a mashpia who farbrengs exceptionally well.

“A few years ago, I was invited to farbreng at the Merkaz Moshiach V’Geula at the Midrechov in Yerushalayim. Many people participated and it went on and on and on. At a certain point I felt I had finished what I had to say but the farbrengen could not stop. So I took out a sicha from my pocket and began learning it with everyone. The sicha is printed in volume nine of Toras Menachem.

“At the end of the sicha the Rebbe says that financial problems cannot prevent a principal from taking in students. The accountant can say there is no money but you opened a yeshiva in the way of the Rebbe Rashab. Write a check of even five figures and you will see that it will be covered. The founder of the yeshiva, the Rebbe Rashab, will make sure to cover it, and don’t do this like so-and-so who does it in a wild way; do it with absolute emuna and bitachon.

“The day after the farbrengen, the director of the Merkaz, R’ Doron Oron, called me and asked me to send him the sicha I taught. I uploaded the sicha and sent it to him. As far as I was concerned, the story was over but it turned out to have an incredible continuation that shows how our lives revolve around hashgacha pratis.

“That year, Yud-Tes Kislev was on Shabbos and I was invited to farbreng at the Merkaz Moshiach V’Geula. Before I began speaking at the Friday night farbrengen, R’ Oron told about the sicha he had requested from me and said that he had made some copies of it and sent it to some friends. A few days went by and he received a letter in the mail from a lawyer with a demand for payment of 100,000 shekels. The reason given was that since he had not paid the rent for several months, he had to pay an enormous sum now plus interest, for breach of contract and many other legal issues. He was devastated by this and had no idea where he would get so much money from.

“The next day, one of his donors came into the Chabad house. He was one of the people to whom he had sent the sicha. The man wanted to learn it with him. When they finished learning, the man took out an envelope and gave it to him. When he opened it, he was shocked to discover twenty-five checks which added up to 100,000 shekels, the amount that would cover what he owed.

“When I heard this I thought, sometimes we go to a farbrengen and think we are saying what we want to say, but the truth is, there is Someone in charge who decides what will be said.”

 

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