The topic of names reminds me of a well-known quote from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: “that which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet.” Translation: what something is matters more than what it is called.
True, a name can never capture the full essence of an object. However, there is still great importance to a name, to the extent that King Shlomo wrote in Kohelet, “A good name is better than good oil.”
The Chasidic master known as the Sfat Emmet gives an explanation of this passage in Kohelet. He says that good oil is an allusion to the priests who are anointed with oil as an initiation into their service in the Temple. Better than serving Hashem in the Temple, a position that comes as an inheritance, is the effort and exertion one puts into serving God. It is through this effort that one acquires a “good name,” i.e., the recognition and reward for the hard work put in.
This brings us back to our initial question. The Book of Shmot begins: “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt”…and then lists Yaakov and his sons. The Sfat Emmet teaches that our ancestors went down to Egypt and maintained the spiritual level of their names. In other words, the spiritual work that they had done and the name that they had made for themselves also came down with them to Egypt. In this way they were able to carry the light of God even into the darkest depths of exile. These names, i.e., the spiritual inheritance of our ancestors, carried Israel through the exile long after their death, and ultimately led to Israel’s exodus from Egypt and the receiving the Torah.
The name that we make for ourselves, meaning the work we do both on our character traits and in our mitzvah observance, is what we leave behind for the next generation. It is our inheritance in the next world, and what allows the presence of Hashem to shine even in this long, dark exile. And it is through these efforts that we will ultimately bring about our redemption as well.