Good news anyone?

Last week there was little cheer in the news as I began pondering my Friday sermon; famine in Africa, crashing Euro, phone hacking. By the end of the week I felt there would be so much to say on all of these, but that I needed my own spirits lifting, and perhaps others did too. This week hasn't been any better, with a horrendous massacre in Norway, Amy Winehouse's tragically early death, famine continuing to rage, and further horrors of phone hacking. I don't often do this, but the sermon I gave last Friday was aimed at giving a little good news, and I had several people take the time to write and say how much they appreciated it, so I thought after another terrible week, it might be worth sharing here! It was written to be delivered rather than read, but I hope it might bring a bit of cheer and hope in human kindness:

I don't know how many of you travelled here on the Central line tonight, but those of you who have used it this week, may have spotted a new art installation. Michael Landy, perhaps best known for destroying all his personal belongings round the corner from here on Oxford Street in 2001, has collected together people's stories of stranger's kindnesses shown to them on the tube, and woven them into pieces displayed along the Central Line.
Travelling on the tube can be a rather soul destroying experience. We all try and avoid eye contact, and disappear into a book, an ipod, or a game. Living in a city of over seven and a half million people, it is incredible how lonely moving about in the city can be, though of course it can also be a pleasure to go about in anonymity. Yet every now and then, human warmth is extended across that small gap between the rows of seats, and it is these that are recorded in Landy's work. You don't have to travel on the underground to read them; they are available on the Art on the Underground website, but there is something touching about the idea of stumbling across these little tales - reminders even - as we make our way about the city. There are tales of help offered, medical advice and general care for the sick being given, those with little giving what they can to buskers, people travelling out of their way to return mobile phones, women being advised they have their skirts tucked into their underwater, even random gifts of origami, and a random act of kindness that began a 30 year friendship.
This is just one example of a story that struck me:
"I was on the tube and noticed a girl sitting opposite me, sobbing. My fellow commuters all looked very uncomfortable and stared downwards, clearly embarrassed. I went and sat on the empty seat next to the girl, gave her a tissue and asked her what was wrong. She replied that she was ok and blushed. 5 minutes later, she looked up at me, smiled through her tears and mouthed "thank you". When she got off at the next stop, everyone looked up from their papers and started talking to each other. "That was very thoughtful" "I wasn't sure if it would help or not" "I'll help next time""

Everyone had wanted to do something, but hadn't been sure where to start. A similar act of kindness was offered to me once on a train back from Brighton where I had been spending a shabbbat on a student placement. A rather drunk man got on the train 2 stops before our destination, and of course sat down at the table directly opposite me. He started trying to chat, and I responded, not wanting to be rude, and believing we need to relate to those around us more. But he quickly lapsed into a drunken attempt to woo me! Not that I don't appreciate being told I'm beautiful, even through beer goggles, but in a nearly empty train carriage, this was just a little unsettling for a lone traveller, especially as my explaining that I was a married woman hadn't seemed to deter him. From the back of the carriage a second chap got up, made sure he made eye contact with my admirer, and sat directly behind me, making oit obvious he was keeping an eye on things. As we arrived at Victoria, my anonymous supporter accompanied me to the door of the train, and asked if he could walk me to the tube, to make sure I wasn't going to be followed and had company. He hoped, he said, that someone would do the same for his mum or sister. I was so touched by the man's chivalry, but even more by the simple fact that he was willing to take a personal risk in reaching out. While we may shy away from human contact on the tube, how many times have we wondered if we should do something, but felt our own safety in jeopardy. I’m not suggesting we all need to put ourselves in harmsa way more often, but the fear of getting involved does prevent us from reaching out and helping – I certainly know it has stopped me in the past.

But there are so many small ways, day to day, that we can make a difference, without taking any risk. Random, small acts that will bring a smile. The Union of Jewish Students suggested some delightful ideas in 2009 for Mitzvah day, including:
•Leaving a bar of chocolate or some money in a vending machine.
•Tucking a £1 book token into a book in a bookshop
•Buying 10p sweets and giving them to bank tellers.
•Leaving a book you've already finished reading on a train or in another public place and writing a nice little note inside the cover.
And my personal favourite:
•Typing out, printing off and cutting up some random nice things to say about people, such as; "You Look Lovely Today!", "Nice Shoes!", "Your Hair Looks Great!" etc and slipping these little bits of paper all over the place, e.g. on seats on the bus or train, in newspapers, in amongst chocolate bars in shops, in people's bags of shopping when they are looking the other way...
But of course the easiest and cheapest thing, is to smile.
Pirke Avot (1:2) tells us that the world stands on three things: Torah, Avodah, Gemilut Chasadim – Torah, Worship, and acts of loving kindness. Those small, gentle kindnesses that we have so many opportunities to demonstrate each day, keep the world in balance, and perhaps help each of us stay in balance too.
Shabbat Shalom!


  1. A summer's evening in 1996, on a train to Liverpool, celebrating my 18th birthday.

    It was just 1 hour after Germany had beaten England on penalties in Euro '96. England fans across the country were violently taking their frustrations out on anything and anyone they could find.

    We had already left one pub where a fight had broken out, and then on the train, a gang of three small but very drunk and tough looking teenage scallies came over to me, and started threatening to hit me. Whilst I valiantly attempted to talk my way out of this situation, the scallies spotted a very large, very blonde, germanic looking man get on the other end of the carriage.

    Sensing a chance to wind up a proper German instead of me, they quickly turned their attention to this man, who spoke to the kids with a strong German accent. As he was considerably bigger than these kids, they decided against starting a fight, and instead got off the train with a few shouts of "Ingerland!".

    It was not until the scallies had left the train, that the huge blonde man came over to me, and this time, in what turned out to be his real accent - as broad a scouse as you can imagine! - asked me if I was ok, and instructed me to stay safe on my night out in Liverpool.

    To this day I am still grateful to the six foot scouser with the convincing German accent, who saved me from a scary situation!


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