Fat Tuesday: Work It

oil on panel - 12'x8' - 2012

In this week’s parsha, we read that:

  • Yaakov (Jacob) worked for seven years to marry Rachel
  • After Lavan (Laban) switched Leah for Rachel, Yaakov agreed to work ANOTHER seven years (although he married Rachel up-front rather than at the end of that agreement)
  • Yaakov was an extremely capable shepherd, and the increase in the flocks (and his own personal stock in them) was evidence of the effort
  • When confronted with an obstacle (the angel), he didn’t back down. He wrestled with it using all his strength, intellect, and willpower.
  • As he fought the angel to a standstill, not quite winning but neither losing, he didn’t just demand the angel go away or declare him the winner or “yield”. He demanded the angel BLESS him for his effort.

“That’s why it’s called work, instead of play”, by Dad used to tell me, “Because it’s hard and not fun and you have to do it anyway.”

As much as the rebellious Gen-X-er in me insists that “if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life”, the hard-won truth is that we don’t ALWAYS get to do what we love. Sometimes work is just work: cleaning toilets and weeding gardens and doing taxes.

And so is transforming our eating into something healthier than that to which we’d become accustomed. It’s not all fun and games. For many of us, it’s not ANY fun and games. It’s “the work of the work”, as an old boss used to say about the most fundamental tasks we had to perform.

The Torah teaches us this week that the habits of tenacity, commitment, and focus when pursuing a goal are, in some ways, their own reward, because they lead to the ability to meet unexpected obstacles that might otherwise have overwhelmed us. The act of recognizing work for what it is, and doing it with consistency and persistence builds the habit of being able to do work. To see it as a necessary, even vital, part of our life even as we also recognize that it may not be enjoyable.

But there’s one more lesson Parashat Vayaytzay that we can take with us:

As he wrestled with the angel, Yaakov didn’t just get a blessing, he received a new name: Yisrael (Israel) – “He who struggles against the divine”. This isn’t just a nickname he can put on the back of his varsity jacket. Receiving a new name is the way Torah indicates Yaakov/Yisrael was fundamentally transformed.

As I pursue this healthy lifestyle, I also hope to be fundamentally transformed. By that I don’t mean wearing a smaller clothing size or having a beach bod. It means becoming the type of person who has mastered an essential aspect of life, so that food is a conscious choice rather than an unconscious, impulsive need.