Purim + The Emotional Life Cycle of a Disaster

by Rabbi Ilana Zietman / February 22, 2021

“When the month of Adar begins, we increase our joy!” goes the famous saying in regard to the month when Jewish communities celebrate the festive holiday of Purim. Purim, which falls on the 14th of Adar (or the evening of February 25th this year), is a time for us to celebrate during “the same month which had been transformed [for the Jews] from one of grief to one of gladness” (Scroll of Esther 9:22). 

Purim, like so many Jewish holidays, is an anniversary. Purim tells the story of how a threatened Jewish minority in ancient Persia came to be saved from utter annihilation. This holiday specifically comes each year to remind us that sometimes, it really is possible to avoid a terrible fate. More so, we party each year at this exact time to happily remember how circumstances can, indeed, change for the better.  

But unlike any Purim in recent times, this year, Purim marks another anniversary – the last time we truly gathered IRL as a Jewish community. 

In 2020, Purim fell on March 9th. While some were already fully social-distancing, I think it’s fair to say that most of us (in the U.S. at least), while aware of COVID-19, didn’t yet understand what was truly needed to keep one another safe. And so, for the most part, we observed Purim inside, in person.  

To look back at that time now, when we’re about to celebrate Purim a whole year later, it’s hard to feel the exuberant joy our tradition promotes. If anything, we’re probably feeling fatigued, exasperated, and quite possibly, still completely bewildered. The very thing we celebrate on Purim, the surprise reversal of that which seems destined to occur, has not happened. Things have been and still are, not okay. 

This past year, while talking with many community members, friends, colleagues, family and my partner about how to get through this challenging time, I’ve been revisiting and deepening the spiritual care work that was part of my rabbinic training. One helpful tool I discovered from one of my teachers is something called “the emotional life cycle of a disaster.” 

Here’s a bit of how it goes. After a disaster hits, community begins its heroic stage. Strangers come together to offer one another help and assistance. Last year, we saw so many incredible grassroots organizing efforts to support those who were most vulnerable to COVID and of course, we also saw essential workers put themselves in the line of fire to save lives and help us adjust to the needs of quarantine life. 

Then, there’s a beautiful feeling of unity and purpose behind this honeymoon phase. For many, this phase was filled with the novelty of online workout classes, cooking demos, art classes, Shabbat services and so much more. 

Then, we then dipped into a disillusionment phase that has had its ups and downs, important lessons learned, but has taken quite a toll on our relationships and mental health. 

Now, as each of us has been trying to cope, get by, and work through the grief of what and who we’ve lost – we’ve been trying hard to stay afloat amid the stresses of living, working and solely existing at home. At times, we can see things starting to change and welcome the hope of promises that are just beyond the horizon. 

But then, triggering anniversaries arrive and bring up all kinds of unpleasant emotions. We may feel sadness that we’re still not done with COVID, frustration over what could have or should have happened this past year, not feeling like we’ve moved much over the course of a year (literally and figuratively), and just general shock. 

As March approaches in the secular calendar, many of us will start thinking about where we were this time last year. What birthday parties we had just attended before we went into quarantine, what gatherings we went to, events and milestones we had to postpone or cancel because things started shutting down. March will probably be a bit tough. 

By way of how the Jewish calendar falls this year, we are given a slightly earlier triggering anniversary, Purim. And some big questions are coming up: 

  • How can we rejoice knowing it’s been a year of a pandemic? 
  • Will Purim always be some kind of trigger? It makes me sad just wondering about this. 

I don’t exactly know how to answer these questions from where I sit right now. I’m pretty sure that while I’ll give it my best (I got my puppy a very cute costume and made delicious savory hamantaschen, which is helping), I don’t know if I’ll be able to reliably or sustainably increase my joy this month or on Purim. Maybe you feel similarly. And I think that is just fine. 

So, this year, while I certainly look forward to the changes ahead, I’ll hold on to another aspect of Purim that is equally as important as joy—hope. 

Before Queen Esther gains the courage to make her risky move that will save all the Jews of Persia from Haman’s plan to execute them, her uncle, Mordechai charges her,

Who knows, perhaps you have attained a royal position for such a moment?” (Esther 4:14)

As my rabbi, Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld writes, 

“Consider the possibility, says Mordechai, that you are here for a purpose. Consider the possibility that there is something bigger and more important than your fear. Consider the possibility that you have more power than you imagine. Consider the possibility that it is up to us to act out of love and responsibility for each other in order to make room for God’s presence in this world. “Who knows if it wasn’t for just such a time that you became queen?” This is the legacy that Mordechai and Esther bequeath to us—a dual legacy of humility and hope, of radical uncertainty and radical responsibility.”

The way the Purim story is often told, we forget that things were really touch and go for the Jews for a little while. They weren’t saved out of nowhere. It took mutual encouragement, belief in possibility, and the efforts of a young woman who hoped that things could be different, that changed the fate of the Jewish community.

Even though we may not be in the most joyful of moods this Purim, we can take to heart the lesson of Esther and Mordechai and know that we actually have everything we need to get through this time…and we will. 

Wishing everyone a healthy, delicious, hope-filled Purim!


About the author: Rabbi Ilana Zietman is GatherDC’s Community Rabbi. She loves meeting new people and creating real and meaningful connections with them. When Rabbi Ilana isn’t officially Gathering, she can be found cooking in her kitchen, practicing yoga, going on hikes, and desperately searching for good pizza in DC (seriously, help her find some!).




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