Uri Pilichowski
Author, Educator and Father - Brother to All

My Rabbi Had a Tattoo

My rebbe had a tattoo. That’s not something you usually hear. If a rabbi has a tattoo, it isn’t something they talk about and definitely not something they show people. For my rebbe, his tattoo was a central part of his story and who he was. Rav Sinai Adler, הריני כפרת משכבו, was a Torah scholar, an inspiring personality, and a servant of God. He was also a Holocaust survivor and his experiences as a 16 year old in a ghetto, multiple concentration camps, and the trauma they produced transformed Rav Sinai into the person he was throughout his life.

Rav Sinai was dedicated to Torah; he was the personification of faith and trust in God. No matter what challenges he faced, he believed that you should serve God with passion, enthusiasm and happiness. In this eulogy, I’d like to give you a picture of who Rav Sinai was, what he stood for, and the lessons he taught. I’ll end with my relationship with Rav Sinai and the lessons that I learned from him.

I actually wrote this eulogy three years ago. A seminary in Jerusalem asked me to come speak about Rav Sinai. I told Rav Sinai that I’d be speaking about him. I asked him what messages he’d like me to tell the students that I’d be speaking to about him. We both understood what I was really asking, both thought it strange, and yet he told me some of the ideas that I’ll mention in this eulogy.

Rav Sinai’s Life

Rav Sinai was born in Prague in 1928. His father was a rabbi with a PhD. He was the rabbi of the synagogue across the street from the Altneuschul in Prague. The Czechoslovakian government opened a museum in his father’s memory. In March 1939 Czechoslovakia was annexed by Germany. The Germans immediately denied human rights to the Jews. Rav Sinai was thrown out of school and the Jews weren’t allowed to use public transportation. Almost immediately, the deportations to concentration camps from ghettoes began. Rav Sinai stayed in the Jewish school in the ghetto until it too was closed in 1942. Rav Sinai only finished 8th grade. Rav Sinai’s bar mitzvah was celebrated on the Torah portion of Pinchas after the shuls had been closed. Seventy-eight years later he would die on that same Shabbat.

In March 1943 Rav Sinai’s family was deported to the Theresienstadt Ghetto. While Theresienstadt had only a few thousand residents before, now there were tens of thousands crowded into the Ghetto. The people worked jobs and almost starved on too little non-kosher food. The Germans told them they could stay there until the storm passed.

In May 1943, Rav Sinai’s father had fallen ill and they were ordered for a transport. They were sent in a cattle car with 58 people to Auschwitz. They were quickly sent to Birkenau. In the beginning there was no work so Rav Sinai actually studied the Talmudic section of Bava Kama. On July 19th after the selection, Rav Sinai’s parents celebrated their silver wedding anniversary. Rav Sinai was transferred and only had a few moments to say a final goodbye to his parents.

A Gentile in Birkenau looked out for Rav Sinai and gave him extra food. Rav Sinai also had some relatively easy jobs that earned him extra food. While in the camp, Rav Sinai and his fellow prisoners built a sukkah, celebrated Chanukah, and read the Haggadah by heart. Rav Sinai was moved to the Plavy Concentration Camp. The Russians were coming and on August 17th, 1945 they were moved all over Poland and Czechoslovakia on the death march. They landed in Mauthausen. Eventually Americans liberated Rav Sinai, he moved around, was sent to England where he studied Torah for six months.

Rav Sinai’s older brother was able to bring him to Israel, where he immediately enrolled in Yeshivas Chevron and seven years later, married Rav Charlop’s granddaughter. He was named the first Rebbe at Yeshivat Kerem B’yavnah, moved to become the first Chief Rabbi of Ashdod, where he stayed for 22 years. After his first wife passed away, he left the Rabbinate and became a teacher in Kollel Meretz. He married a second wife Devora, who he was married to for 26 years. He died with over 300 direct descendants. He authored over ten books.

Serve God in Joy

The first time I met Rav Sinai was when I attended a talk he gave to American students about his experiences in the Holocaust. I thought I didn’t understand his talk because Rav Sinai was talking about the Holocaust but he smiled the entire time. His smile and optimistic attitude toward life and faith in Hashem in the face of his hardships, drew me to him. When he talked about the hardships in life, he always smiled. On Simchas Torah, no matter how much older he was than the rest of us, he out danced us, singing with great strength, “Serve God in joy.”

Rav Sinai maintained that the Holocaust was a punishment from God. There is a section of the Torah that appears twice, called “The Rebuke,” that talks about the punishments the Jewish people will receive for not observing the Torah with joy and enthusiasm. Many people see the Torah and Mitzvos as a burden. If you take that approach, you’ll never fulfill the mitzvos with passion, enthusiasm and joy. Rav Sinai embodied serving God in joy and taught that message.

Faith and Trust in God

Rav Sinai wrote a controversial book calling the Holocaust a punishment for the Jewish people not following the Torah. He said that Hashem said if we don’t follow the Torah He will punish us- and He did. He couldn’t understand people who lost their faith during or from the Holocaust. He thought the pain of the Holocaust was the ultimate proof of God’s existence.

Rav Sinai learned an important lesson while at Auschwitz. On a cold January night the Germans told the inmates that they would be delousing them. Stripped naked and in the cold they were showered with a special disinfectant. After exiting the showers they were told that their clothes weren’t ready yet. On a freezing night they returned naked to their bunks. There were some blankets provided but clearly not enough to keep anyone warm. Rav Sinai crawled on to his bunk and the man next to him told him that if they didn’t huddle together and combine body heat, they’d both freeze to death. Before they went to sleep the man told Rav Sinai that every night he had the practice to study Torah before he went to sleep. He explained that he had memorized the tractate of Beitzah and together he studied it with Rav Sinai by heart huddled together on their freezing bunk. That study session impressed upon Rav Sinai the importance of studying Torah.

Rav Sinai had a favorite lesson but it wasn’t his own novel idea, it was a short “vort” (idea) that he heard from a fellow inmate in Auschwitz. I don’t think I’d be exaggerating if I said I heard this idea from him over 100 times.

While they were walking in the freezing cold, a man turned to young 16-year-old Rav Sinai and asked him about the verse קוה אל ה חזק ואמץ וקוה אל ה, it says “have faith in God” in the beginning and end of the verse, why does the verse repeat the phrase, “Have faith in God?”

The man answered him that at first a person is challenged in his faith and the verse says, “have faith in God,” bu they continue to ask, life is so hard right now, how can I go on? We can imagine two concentration camp survives feeling these exact emotions. The verse strengthens the person further, and says, “be strong!” and repeats, addressing their further doubts, “have faith in God!”

Rav Sinai relished receiving the question of how could he still have faith in God after the horrors of the Holocaust. He would smile and ask the one posing the question – and he was asked this same question thousands of times in his life – how could a person survive the Holocaust and not have faith in God?

That was Rav Sinai’s perspective on life. He saw God’s hand in every event that occurred to him. Whether it was the Holocaust, the loss of his young wife, or the joyous birth of over forty grandchildren and over 300 (!) direct descendants, God was the one orchestrating it all. “Have faith in God!” His voice would rumble loudly as he hit the table in front of him, emphasizing his point each time he taught this lesson, “Have faith in God! Rav Sinai felt that God was a presence in all of our lives and we should lead our lives with that awareness.
Dedication to Torah

Rav Sinai prayed at the sunrise minyan every morning. There is a halacha that it is preferable for a person who regularly prays at sunrise to pray at sunrise alone rather than pray with a minyan later in the morning. This is only true of someone who regularly prays at sunrise. After praying at sunrise for close to forty years Rav Sinai’s alarm clock batteries ran out one morning and he slept past sunrise. Rav Sinai was concerned that he could no longer be considered a person who regularly prays at sunrise. It was only once Rav Elyashiv זצ”ל told him that he didn’t have to worry that he was settled.

Like anyone else, Rav Sinai had a set of couches in his living room. Yet, he never really did anything but study Torah, teach Torah, write Torah, eat and sleep. In talking to his son in law this week, we both couldn’t recall Rav Sinai ever relaxing or even sitting on the couch. Every Yeshiva break Rav Sinai and his wife would go to his late brother’s apartment in Tzfat on vacation, but after his wife passed away, Rav Sinai saw no reason to go away.

Another of Rav Sinai’s favorite teachings came from the daily evening prayers. Rav Sinai would ask about the inherent repetition of the phrase. כִּי הֵם חַיֵּינוּ וְארֶךְ יָמֵינוּ. If the Torah is our life, Rav Sinai would ask, then obviously they will lead to lengthy days, What’s the novelty of the phrase?

Rav Sinai would explain that the Torah leads to great reward of lengthy days, but it is more than just a vehicle for reward. The Torah is the nourishment of our soul. Just as the body needs to eat food and drink water, to live, the soul needs Torah study – it is our life. The primacy of Torah study in a person’s life was a lesson that Rav Sinai wanted to make sure that all who he taught understood. He taught the lesson in words and modeled it in action.

In my life, whenever I think about what I should be doing, I think about Rav Sinai’s dedication to Torah learning. His loud Shema, his singing when learning, and how he would teach me whenever he had the chance, his dedication stands as an example to me and so many others.

My relationship with Rav Sinai

I met Rav Sinai when I was 18. A member of the Meretz Kollel, Rabbi Michael Citron, offered me an opportunity to hear Rav Sinai talk about his experiences in the Holocaust. I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to understand his Hebrew and my fears were confirmed when he spoke. I couldn’t understand how he spoke of the horrors of the Holocaust with a smile on his face. I felt I must be missing something because who speaks of the Holocaust while smiling?

I was drawn to Rav Sinai, and wanted to form a relationship with him. There was no opportunity to attend his shiurim or spend time with him. I decided to ask him a question everyday as he walked out of the Beit Medrash. I asked him a question every day until two weeks after doing this Rav Sinai asked me to help him sell his books. I responded yes but only if I got something in return, Rav Sinai said the book wasn’t being sold at a profit so he couldn’t offer a percentage. I told him that I wasn’t interested in money, rather I wanted an invite to his house for a Shabbat meal. That started a strong relationship where I studied Torah with him once a week, and then eventually I studied during the morning with him. Eventually I became a ben bayit and a son to him. When his Rebetzin Devora passed away, I jumped on a plane and flew directly to Israel and sat with him while he sat shiva. When I moved back to Israel on his 86th birthday, I began to study with him once or twice a week.

Conclusion

The Shulchan Aruch maintains that you tear kriah for your Rebbe Muvhak. The Piskei Teshuva says that converts must tear kriah for the person that brought them through the conversion process. This is similar to Avraham whose followers were called “the souls that were made”, because he brought people under the wings of the Shechinah. This reminds us of the difference between parents and Rabbeim as listed in the Mishna in Bava Metziah. Parents bring you to this world while one’s Rebbi brings us to the world to come.

This is a similar idea to what the Ibn Ezra commented on the repetition (Bereshis 25:19) of the words “Avraham raised Yitzchak.” He wrote that a person who raised someone to follow Torah and mitzvos is like the person who birthed them. A Rebbe Muvhak, as Rav Sinai was to me, is like one who raised them. Where does a Rebbe get the desire to teach and raise students? Why does a Rebbe work so hard, he isn’t obligated to do so at all?

The Rambam wrote in the Sefer Hamitzvos that love of God is manifested by overflowing teaching of Torah to those who don’t know it. A parent raises their child because instinctually humans are built that way. But a Rebbe’s desire to raise students comes from his love of God. It is his overflowing love of God that brings him to teach God’s wisdom to others. Rav Sinai was a man who truly loved God and Torah. That love overflowed to all those around him.

How do you pick a Rebbe? How do you know who your Rav is supposed to be? The Gemara says if you meet a Talmud Chacham who reminds you of an angel of God you should chose that man as your Rebbe. The inherent problem with that instruction is we’ve never seen an angel of God. We do know that an angel of God is one who simply does the will of God always. Rav Sinai represented that angel who did nothing but follow God’s will.

I’m grateful for the twenty-five years I’ve had with him. This day, the day I’d have to deliver a eulogy for him was a day I always dreaded. Rav Sinai told everyone, including his own children, that I was like a son to him and I’ve received many condolence calls since his passing. The calls I appreciated most were from my students, some in my shiur fifteen years ago in Los Angeles who got to hear Rav Sinai over Skype and some from Migdal HaTorah who met him just three years ago. All appreciated and remembered that one-time meeting.

The first three days after Rav Sinai’s passing I just felt so alone without him, but now time has moved me to feeling regret over not taking advantage of the time I could’ve spent with him, and the desire for just a few more minutes with him. Most of all I wish I could ask him how to handle not having him with me.

Rav Sinai was a talmid chacham who simply served God at every moment. He will forever be the model of love and dedication for me. If I could characterize our relationship in just a few words, I would say, אני לדודי ודודי לי

About the Author
Rabbi Uri Pilichowski is an educator. As a teacher, author and speaker, he teaches Torah and Politics, where he specifically emphasizes rational thought and conceptual analysis.
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