As a parent, I found choosing a name for our sweet baby to be overwhelming. We knew we wanted to name her after my father with an “s” name and after Duncan’s grandmother, with an “a” name. We knew we wanted a name that was filled with meaning. But then came the question: “What if the name we give her is not reflective of who she is?” We named her Shiri (“my song”), but what if she has no interest in singing later in life? We explained at her naming that we also blessed her with the characteristics of those she’s named for so we could expect her to grow up to be like them, but time will tell how well her name expresses who she becomes.
As we know throughout the first book of the Torah, names play an important role in telling us the stories of our forefathers. We start with Abraham and Sarah, who go through name changes that describe the great nation they will help build. Isaac receives his name because of the laughter his parents shared at the amazement of his conception. Jacob gets his first name from holding his brother’s heel at birth and receives a second name after an encounter with God. These names teach us about the people who carry them as much as they identify who they are in a crowd.
This week parshat Vayechi, the final section of text in sefer Bereshit (Genesis), tells of the deaths of both Jacob and Joseph and their final moments with family members. In the final moments, Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons and all of his own children. He promises to tell them what will happen to them in the future, but instead he shares with each child their special gifts and character.
When the children were given their names earlier in the narrative, their names represented how they came into the world and who their parents hoped they would be. In the end, we learn that parents don’t really have prophecy into who their children will be. As these children grew, their father recognized that they might represent the characteristics entailed by their birth name, but they also have other blessings to share with the world.
As parents, this parshah reminds us that it is our responsibility to recognize these changes and growth in our children too. We can name them in honor of loved ones and pray that they carry those character traits with them, but we should also recognize the beautiful, funny, creative individuals our children grow into as they experience our world. Their individuality is the greatest blessing we can give them.