What's in a name? As a former classroom teacher of Torah (and of English literature), I have learned that quite a lot is in a name; a name often relates to the character, destiny, or purpose of a person. Similarly, a name can reflect the values of a family or a culture. In this week's parashah, we learn many new names and gain insights into them. Lavan does not merely make a cameo appearance in this parashah, but he plays a supporting role, revealing much of his personality. Although his name suggests purity and innocence (Lavan means white), it is the ultimate "con," because Lavan is anything but pure and innocent. Rather, he exploits and deceives others for personal gain and aggrandizement. He names his daughter Rachel (meaning ewe) because, like the sheep that make up his wealth and provide him station in Padan Aram, she is his most valuable currency. Interestingly, this ewe, used as a bargaining chip by her father, becomes a progenitor of Hashem's flock, Bnei Yisrael.
Perhaps the most telling names in this parashah are the names that Leah gives to her children, because she provides the rationale for them. For her first three sons, Reuven, Shimon, and Levi, Leah gives names that simultaneously express thanks to Hashem for the new child and hope that this baby will change the heart of her husband Yaakov. When she names Yehudah, however, Leah only articulates her gratitude to G-d, by saying, "This time, I will gratefully thank G-d." While she had been thankful for her previous children, Leah is surprised by Yehudah's birth, according to Rashi, because she had not expected to mother more than one quarter of Yaakov's children. Yehudah's unexpected birth represents G-d's kindness toward Leah, and it is for this kindness that Leah is grateful. Appropriately, our nation is known by the title Yehudim, because the appreciation of Hashem's kindness as expressed in Yehudah's name is the hallmark of the Jewish people. Our tefillot (prayers) every day thank and praise Hashem for the bountiful blessings bestowed on us. By teaching our students how to daven and how to understand the words of the tefillot that they say, we not only train them to show their appreciation for Hashem's kindnesses, but also guide them to look for those kindnesses for which to be thankful.