A few years ago, a friend of mine wanted to borrow some money from me. Ordinarily, I would have been happy to give it to him. But there was one problem. I lent him a substantial amount of money a year before and he never paid me back. I told my friend that I could only lend him a small amount this time because of what happened in the past.
Everybody understands that people go through hard times and they may need help to survive a financial crisis. However, lenders lose patience with people who do not make a good faith attempt to pay back their debts. I shared with my friend my experience serving on school scholarship committees. Committee members all want to help, tolerating low payments as long as they are made regularly. But when the debtor does not pay even a small amount, the mood changes. Committee members get angry when people stop paying altogether. Our Sages reinforce this approach to borrowers when they tell us that a person who borrows and does not pay back his debts is a bad person.
Cinderella Man, the fact-based narrative of boxer James Braddock, is about a man who pays his debts. After a successful beginning in his boxing career, Braddock loses everything in the Great Depression. He is so desperate that he begs for money from old friends in order to pay a heating bill to keep his children warm in the dead of winter. He dilutes milk with water so that his kids can have some nourishment in difficult times. Reluctantly, he asks for government relief money when he confronts extreme poverty. All this he does to provide for his family. However, when he achieves a modicum of success after a number of years, he returns the welfare money even though he is not required to do so. When a reporter asks him why he did this, he says: “I believe we live in a great country, a country that’s great enough to help a man financially when he’s in trouble. But lately, I’ve had some good fortune, and I’m back in the black. And I just thought I should return it.”
Jewish tradition says that one must do everything one can to avoid becoming a burden on the community. James Braddock lived by this creed. In fact, the Talmud states that a man should flay a carcass in the street, never feeling that work is demeaning no matter how great a scholar he may be. The Talmud actually mentions many great sages who did manual labor in order not to become a burden on society.
We can also admire Braddock as a parent. When times are tough and his son steals salami from a local vendor, he takes him to the butcher to confess his sin and to return the stolen meat. What he says to his son is instructive: “We don’t steal, no matter what happens. There are people who are worse off than we are.” Braddock recognizes the value of a teachable moment.
In a coda at the end of the film, we are told that Braddock “served honorably in World War II, later owned and operated heavy equipment on the same docks where he labored during the Great Depression, bought a house in New Jersey with the winnings from his celebrated come-from-behind victory over Max Baer, raised his children in that house and lived there with his wife Mae for the rest of his life.” Success never went to his head. He remained a modest man, content to live quietly and productively for the rest of his life. Our Sages tell us that we can learn from every man. James Braddock was such a man.