This seems like a strange request after being given a vision of the passageway to Heaven. You would think that with Hashem’s promise of prosperity to Jacob earlier in the chapter he would have no worries. One may think that this request means that Jacob is focusing on the material world while God is promising a spiritual legacy to him and his children. I would like to argue for the opposite viewpoint. The key is in the details of his request. His request for “bread to eat” and “a garment to wear” implies that Jacob needs only the basics of life to serve God in fullness. He needs no extravagant feasts or royal robes. The basics will do – bread sufficient to to eat and clothes sufficient to wear. Jacob finalizes his request by pledging to give back to God a tenth of all that is given to him.
In this vow Jacob is acknowledging the true origin of all things. Everything we have is on loan to us. It is an illusion to think that whatever prosperity we attain is solely because of our own efforts. By giving back to God, Jacob shows that whatever he calls “his” is truly through Hashem’s sustaining hand.
Everyone's eyes look to You with hope, and You give them their food in its time. You open Your hand and satisfy every living thing [with] its desire. (Psalms 145:15-16)
Later in his life we even see Jacob struggling with his wealth when he finally reunites with Esau. After receiving a portion of blessings originally allocated to Esau, Jacob is filled with guilt. When we first met an adult Esau, he was called “a man of the field,” which is an allusion to his attachment to the material world. Jacob was called an “ish tam, a wholesome man dwelling in tents,” which is an allusion to his care for the social family needs and his spiritual growth through study. Now Jacob is not comfortable with so much material wealth and is bent on giving some of it away to Esau who values it.
But Esau said, "I have plenty, my brother; let what you have remain yours." Thereupon Jacob said, "Please no! If indeed I have found favor in your eyes, then you shall take my gift from my hand, because I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of an angel, and you have accepted me. Now take my gift, which has been brought to you, for God has favored me [with it], and [because] I have everything." He prevailed upon him, and he took [it]." – Genesis 33:9-11
Here Jacob teaches us the key to living in this material world. He says “יֶשׁ לִי כֹל / yesh li kol / I have everything.” Jacob has more than enough to live; in fact, Hashem has given him everything he needs as He promised. He fears that if he gets caught up in only the physical and material wealth of the world he will misplace his acute awareness of the spiritual/emotional wealth that he possesses. And so it is with us. True happiness awaits us when we appreciate all that we have. Our sages said it well:
Ben Zoma said : "Who is wealthy? One who is happy with his lot.” – Avot 4:1