Of the many Mitzvot mentioned in Parashat Ki Teitzei, Shiluach HaKein, sending away a mother-bird before taking her chicks, is one of the most enigmatic. The Pesukim describe the Mitzvah extremely clearly; however, they leave the purpose of Shiluach HaKein unclear. Because the Pesukim do not address Ta’am Mitzvat Shiluach HaKein, the reason for Shiluach HaKein, the objective of Shiluach HaKein is subject to a Machloket between Ramban and Rambam that is essential to our perspective on Mitzvot in general.
On the one hand, Ramban explains that the purpose of Shiluach HaKein is for Oseh HaMitzvah, the one who sends away the mother bird. By showing mercy to the mother-bird and taking her chicks only after she flies away, one improves his Midat HaRachamim. Ramban equates the objective of Shiluach HaKein with the objective of “VeShor O Seh Oto VeEt Beno Lo Tishchatu BeYom Echad” (VaYikra 22:28), not slaughtering a parent animal and its child on the same day. The goal of both is to improve our Midot by commanding us not to be cruel, but instead to be merciful. On the other hand, Rambam contends that the goal of Shiluach HaKein is completely for the mother bird. According to Rambam, the Mitzvah is to assure that the bird does not suffer.
The basis for the Machloket between Ramban and Rambam stems from the Mishnah in Berachot (33b), which states that a Shaliach Tzibur who proclaims, “Al Kan Tzipor Yagi’u Rachamecha,” “You (Hashem) are merciful to mother-birds,” must be quieted. The Gemara offers two opinions as to why the Shaliach Tzibur is quieted. One states that such a proclamation makes Mitzvot seem to be focused on mercy, while in actuality Mitzvot are only Hashem’s decrees – “Osin Midotav Shel HaKadsosh Baruch Hu Rachamim VeEinan Ela Gezeirot.” Ramban subscribes to this opinion because he asserts that the purpose of Shiluach HaKein is not to be merciful to the animals but rather for the Oseh HaMitzvah. Rambam subscribes to the other opinion in the Gemara, which argues that the Shaliach Tzibur must be quieted because his statement makes Hashem seem merciful to animals and not to humans.
Aside from the ambiguous purpose of the Mitzvah, Shiluach HaKein is puzzling for another reason as well. Rav Zalman Sorotzkin, in his Sefer Oznayim LaTorah, points out that the Mitzvah to send away a mother-bird applies only to birds, but why? In nearly all other cases in the Torah, birds and animals are treated similarly. For instance, when one slaughters birds and animals, he must do Kissui HaDam, cover the blood of the bird or undomesticated animal, afterwards. Why does the Mitzvah of sending away a parent before taking its child not apply to both birds and animals? Rav Sorotzkin explains that mother-birds are different from parent animals in the way in which they protect their chicks. Mother-birds have a unique love and care for their chicks, so much so that they do not leave their chicks when another animal approaches them. In fact, even when the mother-birds have only eggs that have not hatched, they still hover over the eggs to protect them as much as possible. Because of the mother-birds’ extreme Mesirut Nefesh, the Torah specifically commands us not to take a mother-bird’s chicks before sending her away, as by doing so, we would be taking advantage of the bird’s positive quality of care for her children. Similarly, Rav Moshe Tendler (in a Hespeid for the mother of TABC’s Rav Yosef Grossman) explains the Mitzvah of Shiluach HaKein as an expression of respect of motherhood, Kibud Imahut. A mother-bird has such Mesirut Nefesh for her chicks that it is our responsibility to respect her protection and motherhood. Based on Rav Tendler’s explanation, Shiluach HaKein can be compared to Kibud Av VaEim, as both Mitzvot focus on respecting parenthood. Perhaps this comparison explains why the reward for both Shiluach HaKein and Kibud Av VaEim is long life – both Mitzvot contain the same central theme of Kibud Imahut.
In light of Rav Tendler’s explanation, we should take into account the Mesirut Nefesh that our parents have for us in everyday life. Just as we must respect a mother-bird by sending her away before taking her chicks, we must always respect our parents and recognize the great care they have for us.