Our parsha records the births of Yaakov’s children. The boys that will eventually become tribes of Israel receive their names from either their father or their mother, or – in the case of the children of the maidservants – from the matriarch whom they serve. Naming a baby is generally believed to have profound significance, as well as influencing his/her future to some extent. The right to choose a name for a child is an important right and honor that is reserved, to this day, for the child’s parents.

The Midrash, in Kohelet Rabba, presents a special perspective on a person’s name:

“A person has three names:
one that he is called by his father and mother;
one that people know him by,
and one that he acquires for himself.”

The Midrash lists three names that a person receives, as it were – from his parents, from his friends, and from himself. The order of these names apparently follows the chronological order in which they are given: first the parents give a name which, to their view, expresses their aspirations concerning the child – his essence as it appears to them during the first days of his life. Later on, the society in which a person lives gives him a second name. This is the name by which he is known during the course of his life, reflecting his behavior and how he seems outwardly. Both of these names are given to a person by others and they describe him from the outside, not from within his own inner self.

The third name is given to a person by himself, based on his view of himself – his own, ongoing, inner familiarity with himself. It is this name that best expresses his true self. It is this third name that presents the person’s essence as he himself sees it, after he has progressed and achieved something in his identity that was not previously there.

Clearly, the Midrash is referring here not to the name by which a person actually introduces himself, but rather to an internal name that expresses an inner essential meaning that the person senses as arising from his parents, his environment and himself. This name is not fixed; it changes and alters with the person’s experiences throughout his life.

The Torah often tells us not only the name given to a person but also the reason for it and significance behind it. Perhaps the names given to the children of Yaakov were original names that had never yet been heard; perhaps they were not. Either way, what the Torah is teaching is that what is important is the significance of the name; it is this that creates its essence. The Torah is teaching us the importance of bestowing the right names on each and every person.