A Man Called Hezi

Sunday, February 26, was a beautiful morning in Midland, Texas. In less than five minutes I would be preaching the first two morning messages at the Midland Bible Church. I was anxious to get into the pulpit. My heart and mind were filled full with biblical truth which I was anxious to communicate.

Just then an usher came to the front of the church and informed me my wife was calling. I quickly made my way to the telephone. I knew she would not call during church service unless there were an emergency. “Honey,” she said, “I just received word that Hezi has gone to be with the Lord.” I was stunned. There was a sickening feeling deep in my stomach. Hezi was one of my dearest friends. We had just spent four days together.

I walked back into the auditorium, visibly shaken, in time to hear someone introducing me as the guest speaker. As I made my way to the pulpit, my mind was racing-memories were flooding my soul.  “Ladies and gentlemen,” I said, “I want to tell you about a special friend of mine – his name is Hezi. God has just called him home. If you stay for the second service you can hear the sermon I had planned for this hour.” I could not hold back the tears as I spoke about a very special human being, a man who became a trophy of God’s grace.

The Phone Call

My first meeting with Hezi occurred 16 months earlier. I had received a telephone call from one of the administrators of the Atlantic City Rescue Mission, a quality, Christ-honoring ministry to alcoholics, drug addicts, and the homeless in Atlantic City, New Jersey. He informed me that a man named Hezi had walked into the mission a few days earlier. He was Jewish, from Israel, and had made a profession of faith in Christ. They felt that, as a Jewish mission, we could be of some further help to him. “Put him on the phone,” I requested. After talking to him a few minutes, I said to the staff member, “Keep him there. I have someone on the way.”

I went downstairs and interrupted a class of our Institute of Biblical Studies. Meno Kalisher was one of our students. In God’s exquisite providence, Meno had come from Israel to spend a year in the study of God’s Word at our Institute. There could be no better choice to send to fetch Hezi. Meno spoke the same language (Hebrew) and had been born in the same city (Jerusalem) as Hezi. If there were anyone who could understand and relate to this new Jewish believer in Christ at that moment, it was he.

Several hours later Meno walked into my office. “Did you get him?” I inquired. He had, and Hezi was waiting outside my office door. However, Meno had a surprise for me. Hezi, Meno believed, had trusted Christ. But there was more. Hezi was a retired Israeli colonel. “A what?” I inquired. “A colonel,” Meno responded.  Meno had served in the Israeli Air Force, and so I asked, “Are you sure?”  “Yep, no question about it.  He’s a war hero in Israel.” “Ask him in,” I requested, as I silently pondered the enigma of an Israeli colonel at the Atlantic City Rescue Mission.  What strange events could have brought about that unusual circumstance?

Our First Encounter

Five feet ten, olive skin, hair receding, slim, self-confident, ramrod straight, about 60, but ill, I thought, as he entered my office. He spoke excellent English, and I asked him to sit down.  We talked about his life throughout the afternoon. I would learn much more about him during our 16-month friendship.  Hezi was a Sabra-born in Jerusalem, like his father before him.  His mother came from a little village in the Galilee called Pekiin, where a Jewish presence has continued uninterrupted since the days of the Jewish dispersion in 70 A.D. On Hezi’s birth certificate was stamped the word Levite, as it had been on his father’s and grandfather’s before him. His very name, Hezi, a shortened form of and nickname for Ezekiel, was given to perpetuate his priestly heritage, for the prophet Ezekiel was of priestly lineage (Ezek. 1:3).

During the Second World War, at 15 ½ years of age, Hezi, along with many other Israelis, enlisted in the British Army. He served with distinction during the war, and that experience qualified him to become an officer in the Israeli Army beginning with her War of Independence in 1948. Promotions came quickly to Hezi. In tim he commanded a battalion in the 101st Commandos, one of Israel’s most elite fighting forces. Some of Israel’s greatest military leaders had commanded that same commando unit. I would learn later (from his son) that Hezi was a distinguished marksman and had, in fact, written some of the early manuals used for indoctrinating soldiers in the art of firearms.  His daughter was the first Israeli woman soldier to train male soldiers on the rifle range. She was proud to use the manual written by her father.

During his military career, Hezi made more than 450 parachute jumps, many in combat-an extraordinary number by any standard. The family still possesses the plaque he won for the fastest time in the 20-mile endurance race with full pack. Hezi, I would learn, was revered by the men who served under his command.  A military legend in his own time, he was being groomed for Israel’s top-echelon leadership.

While still a young man, however, he decided to resign from the military.  He attended Hebrew University in Jerusalem and received a degree in business administration.  He opened a business and within a few years controlled a large part of the appliance market in Israel. Hezi quickly became a wealthy man — no small feat in the young nation of Israel. He made what can only be termed brilliant financial investments and made more money.

Hezi was a genius, and his interests were varied. He became a chess master and represented Israel in international competition. He was no less an expert in bridge. His son would become the bridge champion of Israel.

But that which held fatal attraction for Hezi was gambling. About eight years ago he became fascinated with the casinos in Las Vegas, Monte Carlo, and eventually Atlantic City. A mathematical wizard, he thought he could beat the casinos and recoup the money he had lost in some later, unwise business ventures. He would visit Atlantic City and stay as long as the $25,000 to $35,000 he had brought with him would last. Then he would return to Israel to give attention to his business interests. The trips to America became more frequent–the losses at the casinos increased.

Then, three years ago, while in Israel Hezi experienced a heart attack. He was rushed to the famous Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. His heart stopped, and was restarted; it stopped again, and was restarted again–five times in all. Hezi’s eldest son, who is a cardiologist and computer specialist presently on fellowship at Yale University, said there was no reason his father should have lived. But Hezi was a fighter, and God saw to it that he did survive.

With less than 30 percent of his heart still functioning and certain that his days were numbered, he now totally abandoned his family and gave himself over wholly to gambling. He would,he thought, end life as a “high roller.” In October of 1987 he lost more than $225,000 in less than one day. Hezi was now bankrupt — economically, psychologically, and physically.  He had hit bottom. What was there, he thought, to live for? He had been a proud man, honored by his country, loved and respected by his wife and three children. That was all gone now. Gambling and pride had brought him to the pit of despair. Hopelessness was his only companion. On the beach, looking out at the Atlantic Ocean, Hezi decided he would take his life. He would climb to the highest level of one of the casinos and jump–this time without a parachute. He never made it.

A Sovereign God

When Hezi’s eyes opened, he was still very much alive. The colonel was in the hospital. He never reached the top of the casino. Pneumonia and internal bleeding had struck him down. And now he found himself recuperating in the welfare ward of a strange hospital in a foreign land. He would tell me later that he even failed at taking his own life.

Hezi knew his addiction to gambling well. Whenever he came to America, he had in his possession a non refundable return ticket from New York to Israel. He decided he would return home. Hezi asked the welfare worker at the hospital if there were funds available to purchase a bus ticket from Atlantic City to New York so that he could take the plane home.  There were none. But she suggested that perhaps the rescue mission could help.

Discharged from the hospital, with no money, nowhere to go, and still weak, he remembered the woman’s suggestion: “Try the rescue mission; perhaps they can help.” He had no concept whatever of what a rescue mission was as he stood outside the hospital that day.  But he had little option on that day.  He asked the ambulance driver for a lift; for some strange reason, the driver felt compelled to help and dropped him off at the nearby mission.

God must have a wonderful sense of humor, for when the former Israeli colonel walked into the mission, a Jordanian who had served as an officer in the Syrian Army was on duty.  Five years earlier he had come to Christ at the mission after losing all his possessions at the casinos.  He stayed on as the cook.  In many ways, their lives were similar.  Both were semites, both from the Middle East, both speaking Hebrew and Arabic, both soldiers, and both gamblers. Normally enemies who may well have once fought against one another, they were now kindred spirits. There at the mission, the Jordanian former Muslim led the Israeli Jew to simple faith in Christ. Two days later the rescue mission called me, and that’s how Hezi wound up in my study that eventful afternoon.

A Time For Rest And Growth

From our first meeting on, I would have a very special affection for this man. I was as certain that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had used amazing circumstances to bring Hezi to us that afternoon as I am that day follows night. But for the immediate moment, the problem was where to put him. The dormitory of our Institute seemed inappropriate. He needed privacy, care, and affection.  Meno called his wife. They were staying at the Cedar Lane Missionary Homes, another quality mission which provides housing for missionaries on furlough. Meno’s wife Anat would be pleased to have Hezi stay with them while he recuperated. An Israeli home environment was provided in southern New Jersey. Perhaps best of all, Meno and Anat had a one and a half-year-old daughter who took to Hezi like a grandfather. Her endearing Hebrew term for him, Saba (grandfather), was like the balm of Gilead to a man who had not seen his grandson of the same age for almost a year.

In the providence of God, I had just begun teaching a course on the Book of Hebrews at the Institute, and my colleague Will Varner was teaching on the background of the New Testament. Hezi sat in on each lecture, and had we known that he would be there, we could not have chosen more appropriate subjects.  Sitting on the front row with a Bible in the Hebrew language, he soaked in everything like the driest of sponges. Not satisfied with the four and on half-hour lectures during the day, he attended the Tuesday and Thursday evening classes as well.

His strength slowly began to return, and each morning and evening Hezi became a familiar sight briskly walking around the campus to exercise his weak heart. Now he gave his attention to reading during every spare moment. Six to eight books a week were being devoured — not paperbacks, but major books on theology, the Talmud, and Jewish commentaries.

In some ways, Hezi reminded me of the Apostle Paul. He was clearly a genius with an amazingly logical mind. Unlike most Jews, he knew both Rabbinical Jewish tradition and the Old Testament Scriptures. While in the military, he frequently lectured to officers on the strategy of battles in the Bible and contemporary applications for the Israeli Army. It was all disjointed facts, never a comprehensive whole– until he found the key and Chief Cornerstone in Jesus the Messiah. But once he did, the grace of God consumed him. Like Paul, with singleness of purpose he wanted to know and serve this God who had stooped to save a sinner like him. And like Paul, he had a burning concern that his people and nation find the One who had brought him deliverance and forgiveness of sin.

The Family He Loved

Hezi returned to Atlantic City for several months and had fellowship with his Arab brother who had brought him to the Lord. There he could work in the mission warehouse arranging and distributing the clothing that had been donated by caring Christians. I was worried that he was too close to the temptation of the casinos. He would later tell me that one day he walked into one of the casinos to see if he were truly free of its temptation. An old friend was there at one of the tables with significant winnings.  He pushed $10,000 in chips over to Hezi. He looked at the chips for a moment, pushed them back to his friend, and said, “Thanks, but I don’t want them. I’ve found something infinitely better.” Hezi coined a name for the large and glitzy gambling casinos in Atlantic City. He called them “the towers of Satan.” I always liked that description.

He came back to The Friends of Israel, resumed his studies, and worked an hour or two a day in the shipping department. Ever the colonel, he was always sure that he knew how to do things faster and better than everyone else. Not a few times his forceful personality alienated some of the staff. The irony of it all was that he was frequently right in his observations.

Then one day he came to me visibly shaken. Not since the earliest days of our friendship had I seen him like that. He had been told by a distant relative that his wife had divorced him and was remarrying. Several years earlier he had gone with his wife to the Orthodox rabbis and signed a document allowing her to divorce him if she chose to do so.  This was permissible under Jewish law because of his persistent gambling.

Hezi loved his wife very much, and never once did he blame her for their marital difficulties. He spoke of her in glowing terms as a wonderful wife and mother. He regretted more than words can express the hurt he had caused his wife and children.  His youngest child, a fifteen-year-old son, he hardly knew. He would tell me that in all his travels, he was never unfaithful, never cared for other women. It was the gambling that had brought him low and caused so much hurt and strife to those he loved.  With his redemption, he had harbored the hope that perhaps reconciliation was possible. But now those hopes, he thought, were forever dashed.

Within a few days, however, the grace of God had done its work in his heart, and Hezi’s faith and commitment to his Lord continued unabated.

A New Desert — A Continuing Divine Presence

Through the good graces of a very special friend, a new door of opportunity opened to Hezi. He moved to North Carolina and became part of the Grace Mission family. Loved by the director and staff, he found serenity and great joy there in the beautiful Smoky Mountains. He would busy himself in the study of God’s Word and in writing. He was convinced that the Jehovah of the Old Testament was the Jesus of the New Testament — the very same personage and God. He wanted to write in a way that would enable his Jewish brethren to recognize in the person of Jesus their long-promised Messiah and the God of the patriarchs.  He particularly loved the opportunity to teach the missionaries at Grace Mission from the Old Testament Scriptures which he knew and loved so much, particularly as he now saw on every page the Lord Jesus Christ.

How precious in his sight were the Cherokee Indians, whose reservation surrounds the mission property, and the little church where an Israeli colonel and simple Indian folk who loved the Lord worshiped the God of Heaven and earth together. With more prophetic significance than he knew, Hezi commented that one day he would love to be buried there.

A Return Visit

In February, Hezi drove from North Carolina to New Jersey to spend four days with me. They were precious hours of fellowship I will never forget.  We prayed, rejoiced, and talked together. I have never seen a man mature in the things of the Lord as fast as he had done. In little more than a year, he could intelligently discuss all areas of theology. But most precious was the sweetness and mellowing of his forceful disposition — a conspicuous evidence of the work of God in his life.

We talked mostly of Israel and the part he could play in the ministry there. He was planning to return to his beloved country on March 25. Israel’s three major cities are Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa.  It has often been noted that in Jerusalem people pray, in Tel Aviv they play, and in Haifa they stay. Hezi had decided that in Jerusalem, with the ultraorthodox and Hasidim (pious ones) having great influence, there would not be seriousness in purpose, there would be too much opposition to the gospel. In Tel Aviv there would not be the seriousness in purpose, and there was too much materialism. He would, therefore, make his headquarters at Haifa high atop Mount Carmel, where the solitary Prophet Elijah had confronted the 450 prophets of Baal. There he would do battle for his God. But once again, his parting words to me were prophetic: “Marv, I don’t know if I’ll make it. My heart is growing weaker. It’s not the angina now, it’s heart failure — I can tell the difference.” Hezi drove back to Grace Mission. That would be the last time I would see my beloved friend.

The Call Home

It was Sunday morning. The missionaries came by to pick up Hezi for church. There was no response, and so they opened the door. Hezi was lying on the floor. He was all dressed for church. There was no sign of a struggle. God had simply called His child home. On his bed was his Bible. How fitting that it was opened to the Book of Joshua, Israel’s greatest general. But unlike Joshua, Hezi’s victorious entrance into the land of promise must await another day.

It was decided that Hezi would be buried on a hill in the Indian reservation next to the little church he had grown to love. His daughter flew in from Israel, and his eldest son came down from Connecticut to attend the funeral. Hezi’s room had been left untouched, and they were invited to see it. There was a little television (Hezi loved sports), his clothing, but mostly his books.

On the dresser, his daughter noted a piece of paper with a name and a telephone number. Perplexed, she asked, “Why is Meno Kalisher’s name among my father’s possessions?”  She continued, “He is a close friend, and I went all through school with him.” Not until that moment did any of us know that in those early and important weeks, Meno was caring for the father of a long-time friend. We would also come to learn that Hezi’s wife had indeed divorced him, but she had never remarried — there was no boyfriend. How I wish I could have told Hezi that fact.  But God’s ways are past finding out.

The funeral was a simple affair. The family had requested that a rabbi be present; three were contacted, but under the circumstances, none would officiate, although one young orthodox rabbi appeared very sympathetic. The director of Grace Mission, a beloved friend of Hezi, officiated; and I, as a Hebrew Christian, came closest to being a rabbi and was privileged to lead in prayer. Some of the Indian believers ministered in music, and I am certain that Hezi was pleased. Then a missionary trio sang “It Is Well With My Soul.”  I can still hear the words, “When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll; Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, ‘It is well;it is well with my soul.’”

During those days, Hezi’s daughter asked one of her late father’s dearest friends this provocative question: “On the telephone my father told me that he had at last found the way to God; can you tell me the way he found?” It seemed to me in that instant that “he being dead yet speaketh” (Heb. 11:4}, and I was certain that the beautiful fragrance of his life would linger on.

I was privileged to know a very special man who, in the end, came to know the God of his forefathers.  His name is Hezi.

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