I can feel those tell-tale ropes, lashing the base of her skull to the middle of her spine, running from the nape of her neck to the tip of her shoulder and along the inside margin of her shoulder blade. I don’t have to hear her tell it to know how she spends her days at work – hunched forward over a computer terminal, shoulders around her ears as they rise in tandem with the tension and anxiety of her day-to-day life.
Those ropes are the trapezius muscle, a broad expanse that enables us to do athletic feats like pull-ups, swimming the butterfly and rowing an 8-person scull. So-called because it is shaped, roughly, like a trapezoid. When not busy doing the heavy lifting, it is busy carrying the weight of the world.
All our worries, our cares, our fears, end up in the trapezius. It gets tied in knots, wracked in spasms, and beset with pain. We can’t sleep and can’t parallel park. We are stiff-necked people.
God calls the Israelites “stiff-necked” so often in the Torah, including multiple times in tomorrow’s reading, that I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a lesson to be learned in that comparison. K’shei oref – a near perfect translation, “hard of the back of the neck,” kind of like those ropes of muscle feel to my examining fingers. 3 million people with a spasm of the trapezius?
God means that the Israelites are stubborn, that they don’t take instruction well, that they are exasperating. If you’ve ever gone to the doctor with chronic neck pain, you may suspect your doctor feels the same way about you. “You again?” “Not better yet?” “Physical therapy didn’t help?”
Think about what stressors, what burdens, went into those ancient Hebrew trapezii (that’s the fancy Latin plural of trapezius). Slavery. Hand-made pyramid bricks. Baby boys drowned in the Nile. Endless wandering.
I think maybe some of the ropes I’ve felt in my career represent those same exact things.
Is it any wonder that their necks were stiff, really? The Bechor Shor comments that anyone that breaks a yoke off their neck, and doesn’t want to bear it any longer, is called kshe oref, stiff-necked. When you kept going back to your doctor with your stiff neck, isn’t that what you were saying? “I’m not going to put up with this any longer?”
If you were really unlucky, your doctor may even have dismissed you. “There’s nothing else I can do for you.” You may have been labeled a difficult patient. Neck pain, after all, is a pain in the neck for most doctors. You can’t blame them. Even God almost fired his three million stiff-necked people, right in the middle of the desert.
Thank God for Moses.
“What would the rest of the world think? You brought this people out of Egypt and then destroyed them? For what? What kind of powerful God can’t handle this ragtag bunch of refugees?” What kind of healer can’t help a poor lady with a stiff neck who is done with the burdens that life dropped on her?
Of course it’s not easy to fix. But don’t feel bad – even God had a hard time with stiff necks.