In the beginning of the parasha, the Torah tells us of Yaakov´s dream and the vow he takes immediately upon awakening. He declares: “If God will be with me and protect me on this journey that I take, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and I return safely to my father´s house, then Hashem will be for me a God” (Bereishit 28:21-22). On the surface, Yaakov´s vow seems difficult to understand. How does Yaakov start making conditions with the Almighty? Did he really mean that if Hashem will not fulfill his requests, then he would not serve Him (Hashem will not “be for him a God”)?! The commentaries struggle with this question. Rashi there explains that indeed Yaakov does make a stipulation, but Rashi then qualifies this condition: Yaakov expresses his hope that the Almighty will fulfill His promise that His Name will rest upon him (meaning, that all his children will be righteous) such that in the end he will be able to fulfill his promise (to build a house to Hashem). Most mefarshim, however, hold that Yaakov here does not make any sort of condition whatsoever. Many of them explain Yaakov´s comments as a prayer and supplication to God. The Ramban explains that Yaakov here requests that Hashem will assist him throughout his journey with whatever he does. The Ibn Ezra explains that Yaakov asks Hashem to provide him with his basic, minimal needs – “bread to eat and clothing to wear,” in order that he can devote all his time to serve Hashem. At first glance, this interpretation of the Ibn Ezra seems simple and straightforward. In truth, however, there is great depth and profundity underlying his approach. From this prayer of Yaakov we can learn a critical lesson about avodat Hashem.
The Midrash in Bereishit Rabbah tells us about a convert named Akila who came before Rabbi Elazar and asked him to explain the pasuk, “He upholds the cause of the orphan and the widow, and befriends the stranger, giving him bread and clothing” (Devarim 10:18). Is this all that the Almighty provides for the stranger, the newcomer – bread and clothing? Rabbi Elazar replied, “Is this not enough for you? This was all that Yaakov Avinu requested from the Almighty – bread to eat and clothing to wear, and no more!” When Akila presented this same question to Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Yehoshua consoled him (fearing that he would return to his original faith) and explained the pasuk to mean that the Almighty gives the stranger Torah (which is compared to bread) and blesses him with daughters who will marry kohanim and produce kohanim gedolim.
Several mefarshim followed this general approach in explaining Yaakov Avinu´s request. But the Ralbag insists on explaining that this was precisely Yaakov Avinu´s prayer – a most modest request for nothing more than bread and clothing. These are also the words of Shelomo Hamelech in Sefer Mishlei: “Keep lies and false words far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but provide me with my daily bread” (8:11).
Rabbenu Bechayei explains that this is characteristic of tzadikim: they do not ask for wealth, honor or luxury; instead, they submit the most modest requests, for the bare minimum they require in order to sustain themselves and serve Hashem. The Keli Yakar adds that Yaakov asks not only for what he wants Hashem to give him, but also for what he does not want to receive. He requests only bread to eat and clothing to wear, no more, knowing that if he had more, he would continue wanting even more, as this is human nature. Yaakov knew that if he had just his basic needs, his trust in Hashem will increase (as he would consistently be dependent on His kindness), and thus he would be able to serve Hashem in the best way possible, and ultimately earn the merit of building a house to Hashem.
This is the very lesson that Ben Zoma seeks to convey to us in Pirkei Avot (4:1): “Who is wealthy? He who rejoices in his lot.” Who can take pride in his wealth? The one who feels content with the little he has.
Today, we all look for wealth, honor and luxury. But perhaps we should learn from the behavior of Yaakov Avinu, and from Ben Zoma – to feel content with little (even be it just bread to eat and clothing to wear!!), and thus we, too, can improve our avodat Hashem and earn the privilege of building a house for Hashem, already in our time.