“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” Shakespeare’s quip asserts that monikers are superficial window dressing, detached from the very thing or person they identify. In contrast, Biblical names unquestionably signify traits and even responsibility.
Parashat Vayetze recounts the stirring story of Jacob and Laban’s daughters, Leah and Rachel, Jacob’s beloved. A tug of war for attention is naturally produced by this triangle, fraught with open favoritism. In a reversal of fortune, Leah and handmaids Bilhah and Zilpah bear the majority of Jacob’s children and only finally does Rachel deliver two sons. Examining the veritable roll call of names in Parashat Vayetze offers a fascinating, unexpected glimpse into the sisters’ jockeying.
The theory of nominative determinism contends that people gravitate towards areas of work that fit their names. Leah must have believed this instinctively. Her offsprings’ names are deliberately engineered to do the work of elevating her standing in Jacob’s eyes as she brandishes a series of auspicious choices: Reuben (“behold, a son”), Simeon (“obedient”), Levi (“joined”), Judah (“praised”), Issachar (“there is reward”), Zebulun (“to dwell or gift”), Dinah (“justice”) and through Zilpah, Gad (“good fortune”) and Asher (“happiness”).
In Rachel’s barren stead, Bilhah produces Dan (“God is my judge”) and Naftali (“my struggle”). Rachel bestows names that reveal the sharp surprise that she cannot best Leah’s fruitfulness. Perhaps these soul-baring names are ploys to provoke sympathy in Jacob. The names of Rachel’s eventual sons, Joseph (“God increases”) and Benjamin (“son of my right hand”), clearly reveal Jacob’s immutable preference for Rachel and her sons despite Leah’s efforts.
Our names represent an amalgam of desirous traits, family history and our parents’ wishes for us. Do our names predispose us to careers or personalities? Can another’s emotional response to us be affected or influenced subliminally by how we are called? Leah must have harbored hope in this idea. Yet, if we look at Rachel’s enduring predominance, birth names did not take root and establish a new landscape for this family. They were just roses, full of passion, but powerless.