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Wish of a lifetime

Make a wish. Any wish. What would you ask for? The possibilities, you are told, are endless, as long as it’s something doable. Buy anything you want. Meet anyone you wish. Travel anywhere on the face of the planet. Fulfill your deepest, most fervent desire. Here’s the thing, though. Once you make your wish, it’s over; you can’t have any other. No second chances, no regrets, no backsies. What would you choose? If I were in that position, I’d probably be stumped. I think I’d even be afraid to decide, to choose the one thing that would close the door on all other options. But this story isn’t about me; it’s about my son and his request. Many years ago, when he was a small child, he was diagnosed with cancer. The effects of surgery and treatment left him paralyzed on one side of his body. I was first introduced to wishing then. I wished…and many of my wishes came true. His paralysis disappeared, he went into remission, and he went on to enjoy life with gusto. But as I told you, this story isn’t about me. A social worker at the hospital, then another at the oncologist’s outpatient office, told me about the Make-A-Wish Foundation, an organization that grants wishes to children who have experienced a serious, potentially fatal disease. They explained that my child could ask for anything he wanted,and the wish-granters would make it happen. I said, “No, thanks. Right now, all our wishes have already been granted, thank you very much.” But inside my head, this is what I was thinking: My son is too little now to articulate what he wants. If his cancer never comes back, our deepest wish will have been granted and it won’t matter that we forfeited this opportunity. If, G-d forbid, it does come back and he becomes eligible once again, he’ll choose something then. Five years later my son’s cancer came back.

Surgery, treatment and a visit from the social worker. “Would you like to make a wish now?” she asked. He was 11 years old. I vacillated. I thought that maybe he needed more time to grow up to make a choice. I’m a member of an online support group for other parents of children with cancer. I posted my dilemma. The answers came back thick and fast. “Let him have his wish. Why wait? He’s young enough to explore the wonder of a wish, old enough to make one.” And so we began the process in the winter, a short time after his treatment ended. The first step was filling out an application to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. A few months later they sent us a letter. Having received all the reports from the doctors, they had determined that he was indeed suffering from a serious illness and was eligible. “Is it a rush wish?” they wanted to know. “Do we need to come down immediately, or can he be put on a waiting list?” I looked at my child, riding his bike, planning for camp, wreaking absolute havoc in school with his lively, mischievous personality. “Not a rush at all,” I assured them. “We have plenty of time.” When a Make-A-Wish volunteer called to set up an appointment in July and I told her he was away at camp, I wondered if he would be dropped from their waiting list as he was doing absolutely fine; there was no trace of the cancer that had returned the summer before. They assured us that he was still eligible since we had put in the application within a year of his diagnosis and he had not yet officially gone into remission.

We pushed it off again in the fall, when our family granted him a little “wish” of our own in going to Eretz Yisrael for Sukkos. This was not something that the Make-AWish Foundation would have paid for anyway; it has a policy not to sponsor trips to countries with ongoing political conflicts. As soon as we told him what was going on, however, he got right to work, consulting with everyone he knew for ideas. Making a wish was a huge responsibility. “I’m so worried,” he confessed, “that whatever I choose I’ll regret having chosen it once it’s over.” My married daughter spent hours with him discussing his options. He decided that we should all go to France, visit the birthplace of Rashi and spend time at the French version of Disneyland. He was absolutely sure that’s what he wanted. “Change of plans,” he announced a while later. Now he wanted the Make-A-Wish Foundation to fashion a custom-made gold menorah according to the description in Chumash of the Menorah in the Mishkan. My sons debated whether or not this was permissible and suggested he ask for a silver one instead. I contacted my online group again to learn more about Make-A-Wish and other people’s experiences with the organization. These were some of the warm responses we received: Kate: I think it’s sweet that your son wants a silver menorah. If he really wants one, email me offline and I’ll see if I can make it happen for him. Lauren: I very clearly remember how surreal and unbelievable it felt to be granted a wish. The wish-granters are very skilled at getting to know the child, asking questions and just talking with him.

Sam loved everything about aviation and outer space. They suggested we visit NASA because they knew they could make it happen. It was perfect. Peter: Let me know if you need any help getting the menorah. I’d be more than happy to help. David: My suggestion would be an experience or trip to someplace special, just shared time with the family. Talk to your son about choosing something you guys couldn’t provide for him yourselves. We also have a foundation we started in memory of our daughter, and it would be my honor to help with something for him. Maybe a family trip to Israel?  Yet despite all the input, we still couldn’t decide on the perfect wish. One day my son came home from school after some intense consultation with his classmates and informed me, “Well, these are all the things I can’t ask for: a skating rink in our backyard, a pool in our basement and an amusement park on our roof.” I agreed. He begged me for ideas. “Hawaii,” I said. “Tatty and I would love to go there. If we have to take you along, we’ll manage to enjoy ourselves anyway.” He didn’t think that was funny. He also thought Hawaii was stupid. Big deal. A bunch of volcanoes, Pearl Harbor and fantastic waves. “I want to repaint my room,” he said. “I told you I hated that color.” “You are not asking Make-A-Wish to repaint your room!” I said firmly. Reluctantly, he backed down. “What about spending a night in the White House and meeting President Obama?” I suggested. He looked at me like I was crazy. “Why would I want to meet Obama?” he asked incredulously. “He’s a lousy president!” That Shabbos he sat at his grandmother’s Shabbos table, savoring her cholent. “I remember that a little boy once asked for a sefer Torah,” she mused. “It was many years ago. He was very sick and they brought it to him in the hospital. He was so happy.” “What happened to him?” my son asked. “He got better,” my mother said. Unknowingly, a seed was planted in my son’s heart. While he continued to pester everyone for ideas—his rebbe and schoolmates, siblings and parents—he also started talking about the possibility of wishing for a sefer Torah.

His father held his breath, knowing that would be the most incredible thing my son could ask for but not saying a word so as not to pressure him into a decision that wasn’t his own. My older sons frowned, not sure if it was even permissible. “If a kattan sponsors the writing of a sefer Torah, does he fulfill the mitzvah?” they asked. “And what about a non-Jewish organization giving the money for it—is that allowed?” My son wavered until my husband called a rav and received a psak that we hoped to hear. The answer to both questions was yes. Having finally come to a decision, my son began eagerly to await the Make-A-Wish volunteers’ visit. He sat down and made a list of all the reasons he wanted a sefer Torah to convince them that it was truly an excellent idea. He was ready when they finally arrived one Friday in early winter. “Look,” he said, showing them the bookcases of sefarim lining our dining-room walls. “These books are all commentaries on the Torah, and every room upstairs has more bookcases full of them. I study these holy books. My brothers have hundreds of sefarim they received as presents for their bar mitzvahs, and then they went out and bought more. I already have two shelves of books that I own.” He then gave them a demonstration. Taking out the klafim, ink and feather pen he’d received as a gift earlier that year, he showed the volunteers how to cut the feather and dip it into the ink before writing on the parchment. The Asian volunteer listened in respectful silence, taking notes on everything he said.

The other volunteer, the mother of a child who had also received a wish, listened in amazement. As a Jewish woman (although not observant), she understood the great significance of the request. “My son asked to meet with a certain basketball star,” she revealed. “It was very meaningful to him and he’s never forgotten it, but this is something else…” “Most children want to go to Disneyland,” the Asian volunteer commented. “Why do you want a Torah scroll?” My son said, “It’s a mitzvah for every Jew to write a sefer Torah. When I become bar mitzvah, I want to be able to fulfill this commandment.” “But aren’t there many other mitzvos that you can do?” she asked. “Yes,” he explained, “but this is the only one that’s too expensive to do on my own.” When my husband came home, the volunteers were fascinated as he showed them the intricacies of safrus, demonstrating on the parchment my son had prepared. He showed them how an alef is made, how it is formed from a yud, how the letters get crowns. Then my son took out a Chumash and showed them how he leined and how the tropim guided him with the tune. When he became bar mitzvah, he told them with pride, he would read from a real Torah scroll. His voice was powerful, rich and confident. After they left, the director of the foundation and I exchanged a flurry of emails. I tried to explain what a hachnasas sefer Torah is and what the fulfillment of this wish would mean for my son. The director searched the Internet for clips of different hachnasas sefer Torah ceremonies to see for herself what it entailed. Here is some of our correspondence: From: Sareli L’Aren To: Karen, New York Chapter of Make-AWish Here’s the information you requested.

As I’m sitting here and compiling all the details, I realize that it seems so extravagant. I would therefore like to explain a few things and convey that in a sense this celebration is my son’s “wedding.” When you asked me how many people would be invited to the meal after the event and I told you 100 couples, you sounded surprised. In our community, the average wedding is attended by 250 couples. Whatever we are requesting is considered standard as only those who can afford to commission the writing of a Torah scroll ever do so. Young people usually cannot. That is why it is my son’s wish. The scribe told us that the foundation had asked him about the possibility of purchasing a ready-made sefer Torah. This is not what my son is requesting. The mitzvah consists of actually writing one’s own scroll, and if one cannot do so, commissioning someone else to do it and taking part in the writing of some letters and words.  If all goes according to plan, the scribe will begin the project when my son is in Israel for his bar mitzvah. Upon its completion about a year later, my son will fill in some of the final letters. In that sense, the year-long period of anticipation is also part of the wish, sort of like the “engagement” before the “marriage.” I don’t know how else to explain it. Anyone who has ever participated in one of these ceremonies can understand its similarity to a wedding. Here’s the breakdown of what we’ll need and their approximate costs: Chuppah on truck plus 150 flags: $X Singer: $X Festive meal: $X Photographer: $X Videographer: $X Nosh bags: 200 for $X Hand-held torches: 25 for $X Musical entertainment during meal, including audio recording on CD: $X Catering for reception in our house afterward (cookies, finger food, fruit, cake) for 100 guests: $X Karen, my son is sitting on pins and needles waiting for an answer.

He vacillates between ecstatic excitement and not even daring to hope… With much thanks, Sareli From: Karen To: Sareli L’Aren Okay, I’ve estimated how much the mantle and crown will cost according to the prices your husband provided. I would imagine that your son has in mind what he would like. I’ll work on contacting the catering hall today. I’m guessing there are many options but we’ll talk afterwards if I have any questions. Regarding the scribe in Israel, I was told through our Israeli chapter that his price is $X, plus $X for additional accessories. I’m not sure what those could be unless he’s referring to the mantle and crown, which we’ll get here. Could you ask your husband to find out what we’ll need to pay him above and beyond the price of the actual scroll so we can get a final estimate for his portion of the wish? The Israeli chapter did ask the scribe about the ready-made Torah, but not on my urging. I totally understand the importance of this Torah being written especially for your son. Thank you so much for your help and guidance! Best wishes, Karen She also asked me to sign a release allowing Make-A-Wish to publicize our story and to send a photographer to take pictures of the event. “If you publicize it,” I warned her, “every Jewish boy is going to ask for a Torah scroll. Make-A-Wish will be bankrupt!” Karen laughed. Time passed and I didn’t hear from them.

As the date approached for my son’s departure to put on tefillin for the first time in his rebbe’s presence, I emailed Karen to let her know that if Make-A-Wish didn’t give the go-ahead before he left, my son would not be able to have his rebbe inscribe the first letter. (The plan was for the scroll to be written in Israel by an Israeli sofer, who would then fly to America the following year for the hachnasas sefer Torah, where my son and all our guests would finish the last letters, as is customary.) I received the call one week before my son’s scheduled flight. “I have good news and bad news,” Karen told me. I winced and held my breath, terrified to hear the culmination of two years of labor and hope. I knew that at this point, if this wish fell through, my son wouldn’t bother with another. Everything else would pale in comparison since he had already matured far beyond a trip to Disneyland or even a silver menorah. His sights were set firmly on his sefer Torah. “Here it is. The foundation did not approve the celebration, the reception in your home, the meal, the truck, the music and the photographer. They did approve the Torah scroll, the mantle and the silver crown.” I released my breath and felt an absolute swelling of joy. There was no bad news. They would pay for the Torah, and we would pay for the celebration. It was more than we had dared wish for.

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