In this week’s reading, we are reminded multiple times that we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. First the Torah warns judges to be impartial, especially in handling cases involving orphans and converts, and to be merciful when it comes to debts of widows. “And you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and Hashem your G-d redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this thing” [Deut. 24:19] Then the Torah tells us to leave behind forgotten sheaves, olives or grapes, to leave these for the poor — again, especially converts, orphans and widows. “And you shall remember that you were a slave in the Land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this thing” [24:22].
The Torah also gives us, this week, two Commandments regarding non-Jewish slaves themselves: if such a person runs away from somewhere else to go live in the Land of Israel, he must be allowed to remain there. His master cannot extradite him; “He shall live among you, in the place of his choice within one of your gates, which he likes, and you shall not oppress him” [23:17].
The Torah reminds us that we were slaves, in order that we not consider ourselves “upper-class.” We are to go out of our way to treat widows, orphans, converts, and any poor person with generosity. After all, they are our peers, and they need our help.
But what about a person’s own slave? Why is there a law not to send him back home?
In reality, this is far from the only limitation upon treatment of slaves. A person may not command his slave to violate a Torah Commandment, meaning that both enjoy the Sabbath as a day of rest. And if one blinds the eye of his slave, knocks out a tooth or severs a finger, the slave goes free.
I had the good fortune to speak with R’ Irving Roth lay”t about this; he is a Holocaust survivor and Director of the Holocaust Resource Center at Temple Judea of Manhasset. He knows very well what it means to be treated as a slave — and these Commandments, he explains, prove that what we call slavery is forbidden in the Torah. The Hebrew word Eved is translated as slave in this context, but it is inaccurate — it derives from the word la’avod, to work, and in other contexts is translated as servant. We are all told to be an “Eved Hashem,” a Servant of G-d!
A slave is a piece of property; he has no individual human rights, and can be treated literally like an animal. The Torah tells us that to the contrary, every human being was created in G-d’s Image — and must be respected for that reason alone.
There is nothing inherently wrong with having or being a servant — honestly, having a job for life would be a relief for many of us! Yet the Torah forbids denying the humanity of any other person. We must treat every person with dignity and respect — for after all, we ourselves are descended from slaves.