In 1659, three years after Jews had been allowed to return to England, the famed diarist Samuel Pepys visited a London synagogue to attend a memorial service. He returned four years later and—not realizing it was the holiday of Simḥat Torah—was shocked by the wild celebration he encountered. While Pepys would not have witnessed such rejoicing on any other day of the year, Jonathan Sacks argues that Judaism ranks joy, when properly understood, as the most spiritually profound human feeling, and identifies this as a key message of the book of Deuteronomy:
The root s-m-ḥ [meaning “to rejoice”] appears once each in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, but twelve times in Deuteronomy, seven of them in [this week’s Torah reading of Re’eh]. What Moses says again and again is that joy is what we should feel in the land of Israel, the land given to us by God, the place to which the whole of Jewish life since the days of Abraham and Sarah has been a journey. . . .
The biblical word for “happy,” ashrey, is the first word of the book of Psalms and a key word of our daily prayers. But far more often, the Hebrew Bible speaks about simḥah, joy—and they are different things. Happiness is something you can feel alone, but joy, in the Tanakh, is something you share with others. . . .
[Søren] Kierkegaard once wrote: “It takes moral courage to grieve. It takes religious courage to rejoice.” I believe that with all my heart. So I am moved by the way Jews, who know what it is to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, still see joy as the supreme religious emotion.