Natalie Babbitt's 1975 novel Tuck Everlasting tells the story of ten-year-old Winnie Foster who wants nothing more than to leave the confines of her home in search of adventure. Disregarding her mother's authority, Winnie runs away, and gets more than she bargained for.
Winnie encounters a 17 year-old boy named Jesse Tuck, who has a secret - he's really 104 years old. 87 years ago, Jesse, his brother Miles, and his parents Angus and Mae took drinks of water from a spring at the base of a tree. As others around them grew old and died, as none of the Tucks aged or could be wounded, they discovered that the spring had granted the four of them eternal life. Thinking that local residents would suspect witchcraft, sorcery, or magic, the Tucks sought to protect their secret, reuniting at their home only once every ten years. Fearful that young Winnie will learn their secret, the Tucks kidnap Winnie, to protect themselves, and more importantly, to protect her.
More than halfway through the novel, and towards the middle of the second act of the new Broadway musical, Winnie finds herself on a fishing boat with Angus Tuck. Winnie contemplates whether or not she will take sips of water from the spring, when Angus, reflecting on the pain and sorrow of eternal life says to her, "Living's heavy work, but off to one side, the way we are, it's useless too. It don't make sense. If I knowed how to climb back on the wheel, I'd do it in a minute. You can't have living without dying. So you can't call it living, what we got. We just are, we just be, like rocks beside the road."
Of all the festivals we celebrate as Jews, the message of "You can't have living without dying" is perhaps no more poignantly felt than it is during Pesach. Many of us will recall the memory of our grandfather leading the Seder when we were younger, the smells created by our grandmother and other relatives as we gathered for the holiday, and all of us will know the feeling of that empty chair at our table, missing the absent smile, a long sought hug, or even the thrill of a timely, sarcastic, humorous, irreverent or questioning remark. As much as our celebration of Pesach focuses on blessing, freedom, hope and life, none of our tables, none of our families, none of us, are immune to the reality, the pain, and the sorrow of death.
What we sometimes think we may want is the gift of eternal life. What we may think we want is to have a spring of water from which we can drink, that might cause our long lost relatives to come back, or would ensure that we ourselves could remain on this earth forever. But we know, in our minds and our hearts, as painful and as difficult as it is for us to acknowledge this truth, this reality, that our world just doesn't work that way.
Which is why Yizkor, our memorial prayers, are such an important part of our observance of Pesach. Yizkor is our Jewish acknowledgment that "You can't have living without dying." Four times a year, on four major festivals, we recite the words of Yizkor, acknowledging that our loved ones, and the values and lessons that they have shared with us, the impact that they have had upon our lives, matters to us. We pause to remember them. We allow ourselves the space to mourn, the space to cry, the space to share our feelings with other people around us who are also acknowledging the truth and reality of life.
Various thoughts from Jewish tradition acknowledge that mourning in Jewish life does not provide us with the space for closure. There is no time coming in the future when we will "get over" our losses, when the pain and suffering that we have witnessed or endured ourselves, will be gone. Rather, our painful emotions, our heartbreak, our loss, are regarded as real, and become integrated, interwoven over time, into the fabric of our lives. We can't have living without dying, but at the very least, we have Yizkor, and we have a tradition which teaches that our loved ones lives have meant something, and that our loved ones lives are worth honoring, and worth remembering.