Making Today Matter

Overcoming your name.

Commentary on Parashat Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4 - 36:43

Commentary on Parshat Vayishlah, Genesis 32:3-36:43

Printed with permission from the author.

And Yavez called on the God of Israel saying, ‘Oh that You would bless me indeed and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain.’ So God granted him what he requested.” (I Chronicles 4:10)

Most of us have never seen this prayer before. It’s from one of the most neglected books of the Bible, the first Book of Chronicles. As its title implies, the book chronicles the genealogy of Biblical characters and the time-line of Jewish events. Because the book is mostly a long list of names with little narrative, few people study it carefully. But if you don’t read it, you miss out on the small jewels that pop up along the way, like the prayer above.

Out of Obscurity

The prayer of Yavez emerged out of obscurity in the year 2000 when Bruce Wilkinson, a preacher and the head of WorldTeach, created a whole book around this one biblical verse. He called his book, The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life, and it was an instant bestseller. Wilkinson advised people world-over to say this prayer and even asked for testimonies of how saying it has changed lives. Wilkinson takes apart the prayer and asks us to look at each piece of it.

Who was Yavez, as we would pronounce this in Hebrew? He was one of several children, yet the text breaks up its usual genealogical listing to tell us that this man stood out: “And Yavez was more honorable than his brothers; and his mother called his name Yavez, saying, ‘Because I bore him with pain'” (I Chronicle 4:9). We read his prayer and then we are on to the next name listing. We are not sure what made him more honorable or what caused his mother pain in childbirth.

Like Benjamin

The matriarch Rachel also names her second son after the pain he brings her but, since she dies in childbirth, Jacob renames the child from “son of my pain” to “son of my right” – the right hand being the sign of strength. That’s what the name Benjamin means. It’s odd to name your child after an experience of pain. Virtually every woman experiences the pains of labor, but those soon fade and what we are left with is the blessing of the actual child. Yavez seems to, in his prayer, have overcome the barrier of his name by asking God for certain blessings that God then delivers.

Yavez asks God to bless him and enlarge him. Many of us would shy from such a prayer, feeling it to be too bold and brazen. And yet, there is nothing wrong with asking God to help us expand our influence and reach. We are often afraid of our own power to shape the world, what Harold Bloom famously called “the anxiety of influence.” One of the points that Wilkinson convincingly makes in his book is that we need to harness influence and grow it for good purpose.

Asking for God’s Help

In addition to asking for the ability to help others, Yavez is also not afraid to ask for God’s hand to be with him. He does not fear dependence on God. He asks for God’s company. He is a man who is not alone because God is with him. Jews don’t talk about God a lot. Dependence on God seems quaint or outdated. But not for Yavez. He knows that he must count on God’s help. At a low point in Wilkinson’s life, he seeks the counsel of a former teacher who says to him, “…the second you’re not feeling dependent is the second you’ve backed away from truly living by faith.”

The last message of the prayer is the way that God helps us by protecting us from evil and keeping us from causing pain. Mitzvot, good will and intentions followed by action, move us further from evil and remind us that we are not to cause harm to others. Our job on earth is to partner with God to remove misery and injustice from the world, and we need God’s help to achieve those lofty ambitions.

Perhaps more than the words, Yavez, a biblical character you may never have heard of until today, shows us that prayer need not be lengthy to be meaningful and that dependence on God does not mean losing the self. It may actually mean enlarging the self.

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