What's in a Name?
In its account of the births of the founders of the Twelve Tribes, we find in this Parshah, probably more than in any other place in Tanach besides Parshat Bereshit, in which Adam HaRishon names G-d's creatures, the assignment of names. And the Torah's perspective is clearly that a name is significant - especially if it's a Hebrew name and even more if it contains a reference to a Name of G-d. There is an opinion stated in the Zohar that words in Hebrew, as Rabbi Berel Wein, now a resident of Jerusalem, once explained, are not merely symbols representing an object, but partake of their essence. According to this view, for example, the word "Ohr" doesn't only mean light; it actually, in some sense, is light.
In his work, Bina BaMikra, Rabbi Yissachar Yaakovson cites a Yalkut Shimoni which quotes Rabbi Yosi bar Chanina, who says that there are four types of correspondence between individuals and their names. Some have beautiful names, but their acts don't have the same beauty. This situation involves the greatest disturbance of the harmony which should exist between an individual and his/her name. Two examples given by Rabbi Yosi are Yishmael, whose name means that G-d had listened to his mother, Hagar's, cry, but whose own actions, until he repented at the end of his life, were those of someone who didn't listen to G-d, and his nephew, Esav, whose name implies one "who does" and Esav was in fact one who "did not do" G-d's will.
I've always wondered how the dictators of Russia had such beautiful names, but their actions utterly belied them. The prime example is the murderous Joseph Stalin, blessed with the name of someone who saved millions in ancient times, but from whose hands drip the blood of millions destroyed in this century. Mikhail Gorbachev has a name which means that there is none like G-d, but he himself denies G-d! Perhaps the significance of his name is that it gave him the merit to begin the freeing of Soviet Jewry and the opening of the prisons for the desperate Jewish "prisoners of conscience," and to initiate the downfall of the "Evil Empire."
In Vayetze, the name "Lavan" jumps out at us; the name means "white" and suggests purity, but in fact, as the Haggadah of Pesach teaches, he had the blackest of motives, for he wished to uproot the entire Jewish People.
The opposite type is characterized by "their names are ugly but their deeds are beautiful." Examples cited in this category come from the Book of Ezra - one is "Benay Bakbuk," literally, the "family of the bottle," meaning drunkards. Despite the handicap of their names, they merited to make Aliyah and to participate in the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash. Other examples could be "Ben Bag-Bag," from Pirkei Avot, who said regarding the study of Torah, "Turn it over and turn it over yet again, for everything is in it!" Or his companion in Avot, Ben Heh Heh, who laid down the law regarding success in any undertaking, "According to the effort, is the accomplishment."
The third category is made up of those whose names and deeds are ugly; examples are from the "Meraglim," the spies who mis-reported disastrously about Eretz Yisrael. Specific names were "Sesur," "Hidden One," and "Sodi," "My Secret," names suggestive of plotting and conspiracy.
The fourth, and finest category is made up of those whose names and deeds are beautiful. Examples are drawn from the sons of Yaakov, all of whose names reflect the prayers of their parents. The name Reuven, for instance, expresses the exultation of Leah; the name meaning, literally, " 'Look at my son!' See how different he is from Esav, a firstborn who voluntarily sold his birthright, and later tried hatefully to reclaim it from my husband! My son will be forced by G-d to give it up - to Yehudah and to Yoseph, but he will not feel jealous. Indeed, he will try to extricate Yoseph from the pit!" Shimon, whose name indicates that G-d heard the prayers of his mother, and who himself will be a paragon of "yirat shamayim," "submission to the yolk of Heaven." And of course, Yehudah, whose name contains the root, "hodaah," of the attitude and posture which it most behooves a human being to adopt vis a vis his Creator; namely, confession and gratitude.
Rabbi Pinchas Frankel
Rabbi Frankel is an Educational Coordinator at the OU