Yom Kippur bids us to imagine how we would like people to remember us after we die. As I face that stark question this year, I can think of no more meaningful way to be remembered than the way so many of us remember Michael Holzman who died this past summer at the age of 52.
When he knew that he was dying, Michael’s last major goal was to make it to his daughter Emily’s graduation from Colgate. He not only made it, he was able to enjoy it thoroughly and record the events surrounding this great milestone with one of his signature photograph albums. What a wonderful achievement! What a wonderful gift to his family!
Carmen and Emily were the foci of Michael’s universe. You could see the love he had for them in his eyes. You could feel it in the spirit that emanated from his soul.
I can still see the glow he radiated at Emily’s Bat Mitzvah and Confirmation. I can easily imagine how proud he was at Colgate this past May.
When we travelled to Israel, ten years ago except for the gazelle-like Gail Mangs, Michael was the first one to reach the peak of Masada with Emily close behind. The climb that left the rest of us huffing was not even a challenge for someone as fit and strong as he.
With his keen eye and wonderful skill he took amazing pictures throughout the trip, and I still treasure the framed photograph he gave me that I displayed in my office. I have had the joy of seeing several albums Michael has created. It is as though he painted with his camera.
For years at the synagogue, we had a portable ark for use during our services in Haas or Feldman Hall. Opening the doors during a service was a major challenge. I had to push with all my strength to get them open hoping all the time that the whole thing would not topple over.
It is a challenge we have to face no longer because of the beautiful new portable ark that Michael crafted for the congregation.
As a rabbi I have never had a theological problem with the Holocaust. I believe God gives us free will, and that society, not God, is to blame for the horrors that humans perpetrate against one another.
But as a rabbi I have a great theological problem—and no good responses–for why someone like Michael Holzman has the body that he kept so incredibly fit and strong ravaged and destroyed by cancer at such a young age.
Michael and I discussed these matters candidly together. I wish I could have given him—just as I wish I could give you and myself—more comforting answers.
As I told Michael, there is a reason we come to worship God and do not expect God to worship us. Though we continue to unravel many mysteries of life, there are some things we just cannot understand.
I consider it a miracle that despite everything he endured, Michael still believed in God.
He believed strongly—and he lived that belief—in the imperative of our tradition to make this world a more just, caring and compassionate place.
He also believed in the possibility of an existence beyond the grave. During one of our visits he told me with his scientist’s curiosity, “I am interested to see what it is.”
Michael, if it is what you deserve for the way you lived on earth, it is a paradise beyond description.
As for those of us you leave behind,
—Your parents, who endure today what no parents should ever have to endure,
— Your brothers and their families,
—All of us who admire you so,
—And particularly, Carmen and Emily,
You will live on each time we make a conscious effort to live the way you lived.
You were kind, generous and loving! You diligently developed your vast talents and abilities and gave freely of them to help others. You have made the world a better place, and your memory will always be a blessing!