My brothers had great self-esteem, while I was always struggling to find a reason to feel good about myself
That title still gives me the chills whenever I remember it. I don’t know who first described what a “neb” was to me, but ever since I can remember, it was a character I dreaded being associated with.
“Don’t let your glasses slip onto the tip of your nose!” my older brother Nachum Aryeh would tell me in a serious tone. “Everyone will think that you’re nebbish.”
“And don’t even think about looking into the English translation on your Mishnayos sheets for help. It’s nebby...” Nachum Aryeh’s identical twin, Motty, would say as I did my homework.
“Don’t listen to your brothers, Binyamin,” my mother would always chime in if she overheard their “neb” comments. “Just because they didn’t need a little extra help with their Mishnayos homework doesn’t mean you have to be the same. Everyone is different. Just be you and don’t worry about anyone else!”
“Yeah, everyone is different,” the twins would whisper when my mother had turned away. “Some people are normal and other people are nebby. Which one are you, Binyamin? It’s your choice.”
You might be wondering why my brothers hounded me so much about being nebby. It’s probably because of the fact that I’m a bit of a loner and I didn’t always get the highest grades on my tests like they did. They had great self-esteem, while I was always struggling to find a reason to feel good about myself. My brothers weren’t bad kids, just a little immature and unsure how to relate to my being so different from them.
So when Shavuos rolled around that year, I felt pretty lousy listening to everyone’s exciting learning plans.
“Listen up!” Chaim, the smartest kid in class hopped onto a chair with a notebook and pen. He held the notebook slightly open so that everyone could see he was already starting to write notes in Hebrew. I heard a collective gasp of admiration pass through the class.
“Shavuos night I want to review everything we learned in Mishnayos this year, and I need at least two chavrusas. Who wants to volunteer?”
A few hands went up.
“Hmmm...” Chaim’s eyes darted across the hopeful faces staring at him in complete adoration. “I don’t know who to pick...”
“What about Binyamin?” someone called out from the back of the classroom.
I looked up from my desk, where I was gathering my stuff to go to recces.
“Binyamin?!” Chaim glanced in my direction in total shock.
“I meant Binyamin Stein in the other fifth-grade class,” the person who’d called out clarified quickly. “He also wanted to chazer everything he learned so far.”
“Oh, I thought you meant—” Chaim trailed off and I felt my cheeks burning bright, hot red.
“Excuse me, there’s no reason to look elsewhere when we have our very own Binyamin right here!” My rebbi had apparently been listening to our conversation as he looked at a sefer in the back of the classroom. “Chaim, I think you and Binyamin would be a great match for Shavuos night. Go for it!”
Needless to say, I rushed over to Rebbi after school that day and begged him to let me off the hook. I argued that Chaim had no interest in learning with someone like me and that I had no interest in being humiliated by learning with him.
Rebbi told me not to put myself down so much.
“What do you mean he’s too smart for you? We all have our strong points and also our weak points. This Shavuos you are going to start believing in your kochos, your strengths, and you will see opportunities opening up before your eyes everywhere you go. Believe, Binyamin! And shtieg away!”
I’ll be honest. I thought Rebbi was delusional. What good could come from this? My brothers told me the same thing when they found out.
“Don’t embarrass yourself, Binyamin,” the twins chorused as I brushed my teeth that night. “Just fake being sick and don’t show up. It’s better not to even try than to waste Chaim’s time.”
For the first time in a very long time I decided I’d had enough of their comments.
“Maybe there’s something my rebbi sees in me that you don’t!” I yelled at them through a mouthful of toothpaste. Of course, all they heard was, My dee thsing resisgggha you doot!”
I slammed the door in their faces and resolved to give Shavuos night learning my very best.
Shavuos night came around in the blink of an eye. Before I knew it, I was sitting across Chaim inside a brightly lit, packed beis medrash.
“I brought my notes, a sefer on the masechta from my father, and a copy of someone else’s notes just in case!” Chaim slapped down three notebooks on top of his Gemara and flipped one open. “What did you bring?”
I blinked and looked down at the Gemara I had taken from the shul shelf.
“I brought a tissue in case I needed to blow my nose. Does that help?” I took out a rumpled tissue from my pocket and held it up.
There was a long pause.
Chaim’s mouth did a funny twitch and then he burst out laughing.
“You’re pretty funny!” he said, sounding a little surprised.
We started learning. I asked him not to read his notes to me in Hebrew and to go slower when reading the Rashi. He looked a little annoyed, but because it was obvious I was trying my best he respected my wishes.
One hour passed really quickly. Yeah, he grasped more than I did, but we were still learning great together. I felt I was learning more than in an entire year of sitting in class. It was pretty awesome.
“Drink break?” Chaim asked me.
Outside the beis medrash we found two tables filled with cakes, fruit, and cold drinks. Rebbi was also there helping himself to a hot coffee as he shmoozed in Torah with two other talmidei chachamim.
As I was munching on some melon, I overheard two older bochurim talking behind me. They were discussing a story that had apparently taken place in the shul years ago.
“…so the Rav was giving his Shavuos night derashah and this one guy from out of town raised his hand and asked a question that literally made no sense. It wasn’t just off the mark a little — it was a question about a different sugya entirely! My father said he was sitting there that night and he’ll never forget how nicely the Rav dealt with the guy. He tried to cover up the guy’s embarrassment by turning the question around and making it apply to the shiur.”
“Wow,” the other bochur mused. “That guy must have felt pretty stupid. Talk about a world class neb…”
I froze. For some reason that word triggered me and I felt a rush of negative feelings wash over me. All of the feelings of accomplishment and strength I had accumulated during the hour spent sweating over my Gemara with Chaim evaporated into thin air. I was a neb and I would always be a neb, no matter how hard I tried. I was the type of guy who would ask the Rav a silly question in front of a crowd of people.
“Ready to learn?” Chaim asked me.
“I need one more minute.”
I stepped outside and almost immediately Rebbi came outside as well.
“Nu? How’s the learning so far?”
I broke down crying and related how hard it was feeling like a total neb all the time. I told him the story I had overheard from the bochurim.
Rebbi burst out laughing. I stared in shock.
“That was me, Binyamin! I remember that story well. I was just a beis medrash bochur, struggling with my learning, and I wanted to be involved in the Rav’s pilpul derashah. I tried asking a good question and totally flopped.”
“But… you’re Rebbi!” I was in total shock.
“Correct. So what? How would you know how many people around you struggled in different areas of learning when they were younger? You wouldn’t, right? Don’t let your struggles define you, Binyamin. I didn’t let my shortcomings define me and I managed to rise above them with perseverance and a lot of tefillah.”
“And one more thing, Binyamin. Don’t ever, ever let that word neb bother you again. Here’s a little secret, it only defines you if you let it define you.”
I knew he was right. My brothers could say that word all they wanted. It had nothing to do with me — if I didn’t want it to. I was no neb. I was like my chashuve Rebbi, working hard to grow and be better. There was nothing nebbish about that at all.
The first rays of sunlight were beginning to break across the dark sky and as the blackness of night faded away, so did the darkness inside my heart give way to light.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 763)
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