God promises Yaakov many things when God appears to him in the dream of the ladder and the angels: the Land of Israel, future children, Divine protection, and a safe return to his ancestral home. These blessings certainly seem to be extensive and all-encompassing.
It is thus fascinating to see how, when Yaakov arises the next morning and makes a vow to God, he feels a need to translate the promise of God’s protection to something more concrete and specific. “If the Lord is with me and protects me on the path that I am going, and gives me bread to eat and garment to wear…” (verse 20). Yaakov is clearly anxious about his well-being, and an abstract promise of protection is not sufficient. He needs to know that he will have what to eat and what to wear. That is how he needs to see this promise playing out.
Yaakov is so anxious, in fact, that he vows God that he will do something in return if God keeps God’s promise: “Then this stone will be a house of God and all the You give me, I will give a tenth to You.” (20-22). This vow is troubling for it seems that Yaakov is bargaining with God. If you do this for Me, here’s what I will do for you. How many of us haven’t, when we were younger, made those types of promises and deals with God? “If You help me pass this test, I promise I’ll be nicer to my little brother”. But as we grow up, most of realize that this is a childish approach to our relationship with God. And yet, here is Yaakov doing exactly that. And to make matters worse, God had already promised this! Doesn’t he trust God’s promise?
This question intensifies if we read verse 21 in a certain way. After his condition of God giving him food and clothing, verse 21 continues: “and if I return to my father’s house in peace, then Lord shall be for me as a God”. The question is how to translate the Hebrew vav which connects the first half of this verse with the second. Do we translate it as “then” or as “and if”. To translate it as “then” would mean that Yaakov is stipulating that only if God fulfills all the promises, will he accept the Lord as God. Even accepting God is part of the deal!
I do not believe that such a reading is correct. The first words of God’s promise are: “I am the Lord, the God of Avraham your father and Yitzchak.” Part of the promise is that Yaakov will continue this chain, and God will also be the God of Yaakov. Yaakov, then, is echoing these words back to God. The translation then would be: “If You, God, do all these things for me, and if You will act as my God…” or perhaps, even better: “If You do all these things, then through that You will be acting as my God…” Read this way, Yaakov is again translating an abstract promise into the specifics that are immediately relevant to him and regarding which he is most anxious.
But what about his bargaining with God. Isn’t this a wrong way to act?
Perhaps he isn’t bargaining. There is another way of looking at this. First, we must note that by translating the lofty yet abstract promises into something more mundane and concrete, Yaakov is not sullying them. Quite the contrary. He is bringing God into the world, into the most specific aspects of his life. Yaakov is saying that he will see God’s presence, he will see God acting as his God, in all of the successes that he will encounter during this challenging and arduous journey. What is a more religious act than seeing God’s help in support in our putting bread on the table and clothes on our back?
What is the proper response to this? How does one acknowledge that God has been there for him? First through words and prayer, and then through actions. The stone will become a place to worship God, and Yaakov will give a tithe of all that he receives. This is not a deal. It is a proper religious response to God’s beneficence.
Yaakov is modeling a particular way of relating to our money and our economic success. We must see God in our earning of a living. And we demonstrate that we do by giving a tenth of it back to God. The key word here is “back”. It is tithed to God because it comes from God. The tithing is not giving God something that God needs. It is our demonstrating to God and, more importantly, ourselves that we recognize this as coming from God.
This theme repeats itself later in the story. When after the first fourteen years of labor, Lavan asks Yaakov to give him his terms for continued employment, Yaakov underscores his own success in tending to Lavan’s sheep, and then conflates that with God’s role: “You know how I have worked for you and how your flock have fared with me. For the little you had before I came has grown to much, since the Lord has blessed you wherever I turned.” (30:29-30). My work brought success, and it was God who was helping me all along.
Similarly, Yaakov invests much effort in attempting to have the sheep give birth to striped and spotted animals according to Lavan’s stipulations. And yet, he sees that his success was all due to God: “And you know” – he says to Rachel and Leah – “that I have worked for your father with all my strength… And the Lord did not allow him to do me harm… God has taken away your father’s flock and given it to me.” (31:8-9). It is my effort, but it is God that has been behind it all.
Another dream with angels bookends this story. He reports to Rachel and Leah that he lifted up his eyes and saw in a dream that the sheep were mating in a way that ensured his financial success. This phrase “lifted up his eyes” then repeats itself, when he states that an angel appeared to him in a dream and told him to lift up his eyes and see the sheep and their mating. It was God who was behind it all.
Now, the phrase “lift up your eyes” occurs many times in the Torah, but it is only here that it appears in the context of a dream, and it does so twice. The use of that term here, I believe, is to tell us not what to see, but how to see. Yaakov is saying, I lifted up my eyes. I was able to see that it was God who was bringing about this success. I was able to have a dream, a dream that disconnects us from our physical reality and gives us another vision of things. A dream that allowed me to see that it was an angel, that it was God, who was making me successful.
This type of seeing is what can motivate us to give a tithe. And if we don’t yet see this way, giving a tithe can help us lift up our eyes, can help cultivate this way of seeing. Giving a tithe is different than just giving tzedakkah. Giving tzedakkah can sometimes make us feel: “Look how religious I am. Look how generous I am. I am giving from my hard earned money to a religious cause.” Giving a tithe sends a different message: “I separate out a tenth of everything I earn because I know that it is not mine. I know that this money is coming from God.” It teaches us the lesson of the verse: “For from You is everything. And it is from what we receive from Your hand that we have given to You.” (Divrei HaYamim I 29:13).
There is a debate whether Yaakov established the principle of tithing, or whether Yitzchak did. Those that argue that it was Yitzchak point to the midrash that states that when Yitzchak reaped a hundred measures of grain, he gave 10 of those measures as a tithe. Now, the tithing certainly more corresponds to the halakhic tithing of grain that applies in the Land of Israel. But to limit our concept of tithing to the narrow halakhic application would be to undermine the power of this as a religious institution which shapes our entire relationship to money, regardless of what form it takes – grain, sheep, or cash. It is Yaakov’s tithing which is explicit in the Torah, not Yitzchak’s. And it is Yaakov’s tithing which teaches us how we can lift up our eyes, how we can see God in all our successes, how God can also be for us as a God.