By Rabbi Michael Lewis
“The Graduate” is one of my favorite movies of all time. This classic film from 1967 didn’t just introduce me to the music of Simon & Garfunkel. Its core message — when faced with uncertainty and lacking power, try not to let yourself be seduced by the whims of other people — is timeless and instructive for people of every generation.
In the movie, Benjamin (played by a young Dustin Hoffman) returns to his childhood home after graduating college, unsure of his next steps. At a party celebrating his graduation, his parents’ friends (rather obnoxiously) ask Benjamin what he is going to do with his degree. When the young man replies that he does not know, his parents’ friends descend upon Benjamin, trying to convince him that they know what is best for him. The lyrics from the song, “Mrs. Robinson,” say it best. His parents’ friends toggle between “We’d like to know a little bit about you for our files” and “We’d like to help you learn to help yourself.” The family friends see a young person on an uncertain path and want to insert themselves into his life, either for their own benefit or to ensure that the young man would not make the same mistakes they did in life. One of his parents’ friends pulls Benjamin aside and tells him that the future is in plastics. One of his parents’ best friends, Mrs. Robinson, asks Benjamin to drive her home. Convinced that Benjamin is too uptight and needs to let loose, Mrs. Robinson begins a long campaign of seducing the young graduate.
Young Benjamin in “The Graduate” parallels the narrative of Joseph in this week’s parasha, Vayeshev. After tormenting his siblings, Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery. Joseph goes from being the apple of his father’s eye to a slave of the household staff of an Egyptian nobleman named Potiphar. While Joseph matures into a fine young man (“well built and handsome,” according to Genesis 39:6), his new life is filled with uncertainty, and he completely lacks power to navigate his life. He struggles with how to proceed as an independent person, and others smell an opportunity to shape a young man in their own image or use him for their benefit.
Like Mrs. Robinson, Mrs. Potiphar (whose first name is withheld from the biblical record) tries to exploit the young, directionless slave. One day when Mr. Potiphar was on a business trip, Mrs. Potiphar found herself lusting after the attractive servant in her home and tried to seduce Joseph. Joseph repeatedly rejected her advances, so Mrs. Potiphar decided to frame Joseph, catching his garment and forcing him to run out of the house completely nude. Just at that moment, “She called out to the servants of the house, saying: ‘Look! [Potiphar] brought us a Hebrew man to lust after us! This one came to sleep with me, but I screamed out loud and when he heard me screaming at the top of my voice, he left his clothes with me, ran away, and fled outside” (Genesis 39:14-15). Joseph ends up languishing in prison for years.
In this moment, Mrs. Potiphar uses the word Ivri, “Hebrew slave,” to describe Joseph. Throughout the entire Bible, there are only a handful of named characters who are called “Hebrews”: Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David and Jonah. In each case when these individuals are called “Hebrews,” they are both directionless or powerless, without a home and unsure of their next steps. In each case, the characters easily fall into the trap of doing what others want with their talents, rather than doing what they each desire. They are stuck in a place where they become defined by others rather than defining themselves.
Joseph was rescued from his uncertainty only by returning to his roots as an interpreter of dreams while in prison. But the story of Joseph and Mrs. Potiphar provides a profound lesson for individuals uncertain of their future path. In times of great uncertainty, it is easy to let other people, especially those who are older, more experienced and more “certain,” define one’s path. But after letting themselves be defined by others, our heroes like Joseph were allowed to thrive when they were left to their own devices. They could understand their own individual strengths and utilize them to navigate the difficult time, rather than letting themselves be seduced by the whims of other people. And I don’t want to spoil the end of the movie “The Graduate” but I encourage all readers to enjoy that film one more time.
Rabbi Michael Lewis joined the clergy of Temple Emanu-El in June 2022 after his ordination from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He is a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.