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 rejected.
There are two Hebrew words for shoulder: kasef and shechem. Shechem 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 Dina 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 Shechem (Bereishis 12:6). When Yaakov returned to Eretz Yisrael he came to Shechem. After miraculously leading the nation across the Jordan River, Yehoshua brought the nation to Shechem, for the epic event upon Har Gerizim and Har Evel.
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 Zefaniah (3:9) prophesied 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 shechem echad, to serve Him as one group.”
One of the commentators note that shechem 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 Shechem, 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 Shechem 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.
 The pasuk there actually says they fell on each other’s neck(s). It’s understood that it refers to their shoulders. It is worthy of contemplation as to why the Torah says they fell upon each other’s necks and not shoulders.
Rabbi Dani Staum, LMSW, is a popular speaker and author. He is a rebbe in Heichal HaTorah in Teaneck, NJ, and an experienced therapist, recently returning to seeing clients in private practice as part of the Rockland CBT group. For appointments Rabbi Staum can be reached at 914-295-0115. Looking for an inspirational and motivational speaker or scholar-in-residence? Contact Rabbi Staum for a unique speaking experience. Rabbi Staum can be reached at [email protected]. Archives of his writings can be found at www.stamtorah.info.