Parshat Ki Teitzei contains the mitzvah of Shiluach Haken; sending away the mother bird before taking the chicks or the eggs. It would seem that this mitzvah is meant to instill compassion. Yet the Talmud in Brachot forbids a person to reference this mitzvah in our prayers when we beseech Hashem for compassion (Brachot 33).
Upon further analysis, the entire episode could be construed as cruel. After all, where’s the compassion in taking a mother bird’s young? The Ramban explains that we are not showing compassion to birds. After all, we eat birds. But shoo-ing the mother bird is meant to foster within us more compassion- for our fellow human beings. In this way, it’s like “not embarrassing the Challah” on Shabbat by covering it before Kiddush. Bread doesn’t get embarrassed. But we practice our sensitivity even on inanimate objects so that it is well developed and primed to be directed towards other human beings.
This discussion about Shiluach Haken always reminds me of something I heard from Rabbi Avraham Rivlin, Mashgiach at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh. When a person says that he loves fish, he does not mean what he says. For if he really loves fish, then he would catch the fish, give it a kiss and then let it go. Rather, when a person says that he loves fish what he really means is that he loves to eat fish, or he loves how he feels with his mouth or belly full of fish. The language of love is expressed towards fish but what is meant is really an exercise in ego.
We don’t all love fish, but we all should have loved ones in our life. When we say we love our spouse, we love our relatives, we love our children- what do we mean? Which kind of love is it? Is it the kind of love that is sincerely concerned with the other? Or is it an egotistical, self-centered type of love? Do we want what’s best for our loved ones? Or do we want from our loved ones what we think is best?