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Yes We Can (Has Cheez­burger)

Or, it’s time to give some love to Esau

Liel Leibovitz
November 26, 2008

As a matter of principle, Internet phenomena are about as pleasant as unsolicited take-out menus or uninvited houseguests”unwelcome distractions that clutter the mind and disturb the peace.

Even those among us with only the most limited of connections to the Web have, in all likelihood, not been spared: the Obama girl, the Star Wars Kid, the Numa Numa guy, anonymous folks transformed into media sensations by the sheer power of their passion and the ‘net’s ravenous appetite for the new and amusing.

Myself, I’ve spent the last two years seized by sporadic attacks of “Chocolate Rain,” the ubiquitous song by the earnest amateur Tay Zonday, finding myself imitating the man’s peculiar vocal acrobatics and observing with quiet horror as more and more of my brain cells, anguishing in despair, decided to do the honorable thing and end their lives rather than succumb to another singing of the idiotic tune.

But in the crowded and murky world of viral videos and fickle fame, one phenomenon stands alone: the lolcats, images of cats accompanied by poorly spelled, grammatically incorrect captions, supposedly representing the cat’s true wishes and often focusing on the poor animal’s unfulfilled desire to obtain its single culinary craving, a cheeseburger (or, if you’re a lolcat, a cheezburger). Before you continue, dear reader, please take a few minutes and familiarize yourself with the lolcats’ intricate universe here, or, if you prefer your hilarity on paper, purchase the recently released lolcats book. And when you’re done, I believe you’ll come to this simple conclusion: As Jay Dixit so poignantly observed recently on Salon, lolcats persevered where other Internet phenomena faded because the juxtaposition of the cute cats and the tragic texts allows us to say things about the human condition we would never otherwise be able to say without breaking out in tears. In other words, by plaintively asking, “I can has cheezburger?” the ur-lolcat is echoing each one of us when we ask if we can have a better job, a more fulfilling relationship, a less stressful life, and, just like us, the cat is unsure, ineloquent, and confused.

And since the lolcats are clearly attuned to the Bible, having embarked on a massive project of translating the Good Book into their own, convoluted language, it is time they met their Biblical ancestor. His name is Esau.

Remember him? A decent fellow, a great hunter, a man with strong arms and a simple mind and a kind heart. All of that, alas, was not enough to get poor Esau through the day: as this week’s parasha tell us, his cunning younger brother, Jacob, the bookish and clever one who spent his days studying, tricked the hairy hunter at every turn. First it was the mess of pottage, a simple bean stew that Jacob sold to his brother in return for the latter’s rights as Isaac’s firstborn. Then, aided by his mother, Jacob dressed up as Esau and kneeled under the blind Isaac’s hand for one last blessing, once again stealing his hapless brother’s thunder.

While it is tempting to take pleasure in Jacob’s wily wisdom, the story, on second reading, is infuriating: a starving Esau, back from a hard day’s work, is forced to pay the dearest of prices for the simplest of meals. A loving Esau, out to hunt for his father’s favorite meat, is blindsided by his mother and brother, and once again deprived of what is rightfully his. An innocent Esau is condemned by his father to live by his sword. And if that’s not enough, the Bible tells us (although in a later parasha) that even after all of this slime and subterfuge, the hunter still found it in his heart to forgive his brother.

That, perhaps, is because Esau understood what every lolcat instinctively knows: for the most part, life is an endless series of frustrations, an exercise in seeing the things you want most”be it your birthright or a tasty cheezburger”taken away from you.

To some, that may sound hopeless and bleak; but never to Esau. He who had had everything taken from him still found time for not one but three wives, and died a content and wealthy man. Not a patriarch, that is true, but a man in full nonetheless.

Let us, then, praise less-than-famous men. Let us praise Esau for his honesty, and recognize that even if Jacob’s treachery was motivated, as much of Jewish tradition suggests, by a deep and substantiated fear that his brother simply wasn’t up to the task of being the firstborn, we should regardless take a moment to celebrate the hunter’s simple and honorable virtues.

And so, if I had to choose a teacher among the two twin brothers, I’d likely side with the lolcats and pick Esau. I might die of hunger, but I’d at least do so with my heart at peace and my mind at rest. Or, as a lolcat might put it, I iz be happy.

Liel Leibovitz is the author of the recently published Lili Marlene: The Soldiers’ Song of World War II.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.