It’s your birthday. Your young children let you sleep in. Stealthily, they sneak downstairs to prepare a card, hand-drawn, with clashing colors of crayons. They find a crumpled piece of gift wrap for a beaded necklace that they crafted. Finally and hesitatingly, they hand over their special present to you.

And, of course, more than the most expensive gift, their humble offering means the world to you.

Now, imagine these scenarios:

You gave a nice sum of money to a poor person who is down on his luck. You sat chatting with a home-bound, elderly neighbor to brighten his day. You brought over a home-cooked meal to a close friend who is bedridden. Or you read your child his favorite nighttime story—for the fifteenth time.

Terrific, right? You should feel pretty good about yourself.

But there’s one ingredient that’s essential to making it special and appreciated.

Your children’s humble present meant so much to you because it was given with such love and joy. They offered what they could, and they did it with hearts that were overflowing.

If joy would be missing from any one of your offerings, the thoughtful gift would become ugly. That home-cooked meal—given with a sour, resentful face—just wouldn’t taste the same, just as the time spent in anger or irritation with your elderly neighbor or young child would become almost meaningless. The recipients might benefit somewhat from what you gave, but the act would be missing its soul.

At the end of the Torah portion of Ki Tavo, we learn why G‑d sent us into exile.

Because you did not serve G‑d with happiness and with gladness of heart, in abundance of everything, therefore you shall serve your enemies . . . (Deuteronomy 28:47–48)

Different explanations are given as to what this passage mean. Rashi suggests that we didn’t serve G‑d when He gave us an abundance of goodness, so we will serve our enemies in poverty.

But the words seem to imply that we were serving G‑d, just not with happiness.

Maimonides explains: “Even though you served G‑d, you did not serve Him with joy—that is the source of all afflictions.”

Why such extreme punishment for simply lacking joy?

G‑d didn’t create us as perfect beings. We do not always do only good, and we can’t escape from messing up. But if we serve G‑d with joy—showing Him that we are happy and grateful to do His commandments—then our joy inspires G‑d to overlook our shortcomings. (Likutei Torah 2:20c)

Like any parent, G‑d doesn’t expect the most glamorous and expensive “offerings” from us. He appreciates our humble deeds, such as when I held back from that juicy gossip or when I smiled when I felt like screaming. G‑d understands how much effort even the smallest act of self-sacrifice or self-restraint requires of us.

As long as we do so with joy.