What’s in a name? A lot!Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4-36:43

What’s in a name? A lot!Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4-36:43

“What’s in a name?
That which we call a rose
by any other name
would smell as sweet.”
— Shakespeare
Each one of us received a name when we were born.  Our parents thought long and hard to give us a name that was meaningful to them.
We are often named after a loved one.  In Ashkenazic tradition it is common to name after someone deceased as a way of honoring this relative and keeping them with the living family.  It is also a way for the parents to raise expectations for the child to emulate values and actions of their ancestor. 
In Sephardic communities, it is not uncommon for a child to be named after a living relative.  There is talmudic support for this from a story when a child was named after a scholar who was still living.
Both the Sephardic and Ashkenazic traditions are customs.  They certainly carry much weight in their communities, but they are customs nonetheless. These customs give parents some direction in giving names to their children.   There is often much deliberation when deciding upon a name — an act that Judaism holds in high regard.  Rabbinic texts indicate this by mentioning that parents giving their child a name obtain 1/60 of prophecy.  We can look at this teaching and either interpret it as names being given by God, through our parents, to us or that by giving a name our parents had insight into who we would be in the future.
People obtain a name when they are born but make a name for themselves as they grow.  While our parents have the gift of prophecy in choosing our name, through our actions, we determine the value of our name.  We are told in Pirkei Avot (The Sayings of our Ancestors), “One who acquires a good name has acquired something precious.” 
In this parsha, Jacob acquires a new name.  He is told that he will no longer be called Ya’akov, but instead will be Yisrael.  Rashi sees these two names as two different ways that Jacob presents himself in the world.  Other people, specifically Abraham and Sarah, whose names are changed, are no longer referred to as their original name but throughout the remainder of the TaNaCh Jacob is called both Yisrael as well as Ya’akov. 
We know that we are called different things by different people in different situations.  We may be called by our first name, a nickname or even a title.  Sometimes what people call us may even be contradictory.  We can be both mother and daughter, we can be grandpa and dad. 
Our different names are an expression of the relationship that we have with the individual person or group of people who use them.  We all have the ability to live up to the names we were given, to fulfill the prophecy of our parents and to make a good name for ourselves.  When we do, we truly have acquired something good.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)