The other day, I was sitting at my desk and wanted to grab a book that was just out of my reach. I stood up quickly, without realizing that my jacket pocket was caught on the arm of the chair. In sports vernacular, they would say that it was a career-ending injury for my suit jacket.
It forced me to do something I hardly do: go deep into the bowels of my closet to see what was in there. Lo and behold, I found a nice suit I had forgotten about. To be honest, it was a little snug (they don’t make them like they used to…) but it still was a good fit.
The only issue was that I noticed a faded stain on the shoulder of the jacket. I realized it must have been from a few years earlier, when our twins were still infants. I must have been holding one of them over my shoulder, without a cloth diaper. You can always tell parents of infant children from the spit up stains on their shoulders.
We don’t think much about our shoulders. Shoulders have the widest range of motion of any joint in the body. They allow us to be flexible and to extend ourselves. For the same reason, shoulders are very prone to injury.
In sports, shoulders play a vital role, such as swinging a tennis racket, pitching a baseball, or shooting a basketball.
Football players notoriously wear huge shoulder pads to protect themselves. During the 1980s, NFL players would wear extra shoulder padding to make themselves appear even more intimidating. That stopped when players realized that the added padding impeded their ability to play their best.
In hockey, a player can check an opposing team’s player into the boards by lowering his shoulder and skating into his opponent’s chest.
A friend related that his basketball coach always reminded him to use his shoulders when driving down the lane, shooting, or playing defense.
After I began working on this brilliant article, my students informed me that, during a recent NBA game, last year’s MVP, Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets, lowered his shoulder and charged into another player from behind, violently knocking him to the ground. It was an act of retaliation for the other player fouling him first. Both players were immediately ejected.
There are two Hebrew words for shoulder: kaseif and shechem. Sh’chem is also the name of a city in Eretz Yisrael with a storied history. On the one hand, great tragedies occurred there, including the abduction of Dinah and the sale of Yosef. On the other hand, there were positive events that occurred there, as well.
The first place Avraham went to when he arrived in Eretz Yisrael was Sh’chem (B’reishis 12:6). When Yaakov returned to Eretz Yisrael, he came to Sh’chem. After miraculously leading the nation across the Jordan River, Yehoshua brought the nation to Sh’chem, for the epic event upon Har G’rizim and Har Eival.
Another place where shoulders are significant in the Torah is after being reunited, Yosef and Binyamin cried upon each other’s shoulders, each weeping for future losses of the other, not for their own pain.
The Navi Tz’fanyah (3:9) prophesies that in the future “I will change the nations to speak a pure language, so that they will all proclaim the Name of Hashem, l’avdo sh’chem echad – to serve Him as one group.”
One of the commentators notes that sh’chem here also refers to a shoulder. The prophet is saying that, in the future, all nations will turn their shoulders together to bear the yoke of serving Hashem.
Like the city of Sh’chem, the shechem (shoulder) in the body can be embracing or distancing; it all depends on one’s attitude and approach.
How one “uses” his shoulder dictates his approach and relationship with others. One can use his shoulder to push others away, or check them into the boards – physically, spiritually, mentally, and psychologically creating distance or friction. On the other hand, one can offer his shoulder for another to cry on or “spit up” on. He can lower his shoulder to embrace others and allow others into his inner circle.
In the city of Sh’chem, great tragedies occurred when individuals selfishly turned their shoulders away, to ostracize, or failing to recognize how their own selfish gratification would affect others. But in the same place, there was potential for unity and holiness, when there was selflessness and a desire to unite.
We all have broad shoulders. It’s up to us to decide how to use them.