Following the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, God continues to give the Israelites a plethora of additional legislation contained within the section of text known as sefer ha-b'rit, "The Book of the Covenant" (Exodus 24:7). Our Torah portion this week, Parshat Mishpatim, contains this extensive code of laws that follow the Ten Commandments.
What's striking to me about this legislation is that the laws governing the management of slaves is among the first legislation recorded in this Book of the Covenant that includes the "eye for an eye," the prohibition on a mixture of meat and milk, and the three pilgrimage festivals. Why is slavery the first set of laws in among this corpus of legislation? After all, God and Moses are addressing a group of recently escaped slaves, who endured generations of persecution and even genocide under Egyptian rule.
In this code of laws, the Torah does not seek to outlaw slavery but seeks to make it more humane. Under the context of the Ancient Near East, slavery was unfortunately a fact of life. There were people who were forced to sell themselves or their offspring as slaves in order to pay off debts or just to survive. The revolutionary idea of the Torah is that there is a limit to slavery - it isn't a lifetime, it is a maximum of seven years (unless the slave wants to continue his or her servitude due to a relationship developed during slavery).
I see these laws of slavery following revelation on Mt. Sinai to be a reminder to the Israelites that they too were (very recently) slaves themselves. How much better would life in Egypt have been if only the maximum tenure of a slave were seven years, if there were some restraints on the institution of slavery?
This is how I read the laws of slavery beginning the Book of the Covenant: "Hey, remember Egypt? Remember how horrible slavery was? We are not going to do that to other people. We are above that. We were slaves in the land of Egypt and we will always remember that oppression and will never ever let it happen to others."
Twice within this week's parsha, out of thirty-six times in the Torah as a whole, the text says: You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23:9) From the standpoint of the Israelite at the base of Mt. Sinai, indeed we were there, we were just strangers and slaves in the land of Egypt as recently as a few weeks ago. We will change the world, one step at a time, starting with the oppression of slavery.