The Chofetz Chaim in the forward to his Sefer Ahavas Chesed enumerates the places in the Torah that describe acts of kindness. There is one listed in this week’s Torah portion of Vayeitzei: “And also in the portion of Vayeitzei, ‘And Yaakov swore an oath saying etc. And all that you give to me I will surely tithe to you’ presumably that is referring tithing for tzedaka (charity) and chesed (kindness).”
The Torah states the complete vow Yaakov expressed to Hashem, “Then Yaakov took a vow, saying, ‘If G-D will be with me, will guard me on this way that I am going; will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear; and I return in peace to my father’s house, and Hashem will be a G-D to me, then this stone which I have set up as a pillar shall become a house of G-D, and whatever You will give, I shall doubly tithe to You'” (Breishis 28:20-22). The Radak explains every step of this oath. First off, he points out that Yaakov made a vow on condition but that the condition wasn’t added because he chas vishalom doubted in any way that Hashem might not follow through with His end of the deal. Rather, it was a scare tactic that Yaakov performed on himself to ensure he didn’t sin and would be undeserving of the fulfillment of the oath, which would mean he would not wind up returning home and fulfilling his end of the vow. Yaakov asked specifically just for “‘bread to eat and clothes to wear;’ he did not ask for anything extra, just what he needed to live. He didn’t need to ask for water because a person can always find water for free everywhere.”
The Radak goes on to explain that Yaakov asked to return home in peace, which means with a wife and children, for without them there would not be peace in the family since it was known that he was not able to marry someone from Canaan. So if he had come home still a bachelor his parents would not have been too happy. Yaakov also asked that Hashem would be His G-D, meaning he wanted the opportunity to be able to have time alone to serve Hashem, without the burdens of dealing with worldly matters his entire life. He also swore that the stone pillar he erected would one day be the House of G-D, meaning this spot would be the place where his descendants would build the Beis Hamikdash and set up the alter for all the services to Hashem, and for praying to Him and no other.
Yaakov finally, in conclusion, swore “‘and all that you give to me I shall doubly tithe,’ meaning I will give a tenth of all my belonging and flock that was given to me, and I will give them to people who needs them so that they will become G-D fearing and serving Him. They said (in Breishis Rabba 70:7) that also on his children he would take a tithe, and so Levi was that tithe for he was involved with the service of Hashem more than the other brothers and Yaakov learned with him in private and gave him the secrets of wisdom and the Torah… the Rabbis (in Kesubos 50a) learn from the double connotation of עשר אעשרנו, the double tithe that one should not give to tzedaka from his property more than a fifth, based on this pasuk, for 2 tenths is a fifth. This limit is in order so that one will not have to need others to support him.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
Yaakov Avinu was a very pure and learned person who always wanted to do the right thing and understood that he was taking an oath to ensure he would be deserving of its fulfillment. Vows aren’t taken lightly in Jewish Law, it is a very serious business. Yet what Yaakov Avinu said seems to be a contradiction which doesn’t make sense. He first asks for the bare minimum to live, then he says if You, Hashem, fulfill my wishes then I will give a fifth of all my property to people in need. But if he takes a fifth or even a tenth of his bare necessities and gives it away then he would be needing help from others to support him. And the gemara in Kesubos says one should not put himself in that position, based on this very episode; so how do we resolve this contradiction?
However if you look closely at the Radak he says, “he only asked for his needs, in order to live.” It must be that part of living is the ability to give. Yaakov Avinu included in his oath that he should be able to have enough to take care of himself, his family, and still have the ability to give a fifth of his property to the needy. That’s the bare minimum, because being able to give is part of life which one cannot live without.
In the same vein the Ralbag learned from Yaakov’s request, “that it’s not appropriate for people to be overwhelmed with a lot of things but rather be satisfied with just one’s needs. For you see that Yaakov Avinu only asked for his needs, which were bread to eat and clothes to wear.” We must say that the Ralbag would also conclude that being able to give to the needy is a fundamental need which is part of what Yaakov was asking for. What is interesting to note, in conclusion, is that Yaakov didn’t just ask Hashem for a lot of stuff and the patience, ability, and where with all to take care of all the stuff, but rather just enough to take care of himself and to still be able to give a fifth of his property to others. Just as he asked for the minimum because he had faith in Hashem why couldn’t he ask for a lot more, with the faith that Hashem will help him take care of all of it? We learn from here that the test of dealing with one’s abundance of money is much more overwhelming than dealing with taking care of yourself and the family while just making ends meet. One shouldn’t test himself and ask for a lot, if Hashem wants to provide a lot that is because one has the potential to handle it and serve Hashem properly, then Hashem will provide, but to ask from Hashem it is best to ask for simplicity, and part of the simple life is giving. (Click here for Hebrew text.)