The word slavery has acquired a very specific set of connotations, given the horrors that American slave-owners visited upon their slaves (and then upon freed blacks as well, as I recently was reminded by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic). But the mitzvot the Torah sets up around slavery show us that’s not the only way for it to go.
Those rules would be sensible and humane without any mention of Egypt; the Torah’s connecting three of those mitzvot to the Exodus adds a dimension that reverberates for us even in a time when we have none of the permutations of slavery the Torah allowed.
Not the Labor of a Slave
Vayikra 25; 39-42 starts by referring to your brother becoming poor and being sold to you. As Torah Temimah notes, Torat Kohanim explains the Torah’s referring to this person both as your brother and as a slave as requiring us to have different attitudes to the experience. The person sold should think of himself as a slave, should feel beholden to his master, obligated to work assiduously, as a slave would. The master, on the other hand, should treat the slave as a brother, a fellow Jew. A brother who fell on hard times, who had been in some senses purchased for a period of time, but a brother nonetheless.
A prominent way the owner shows that attitude is by heeding the Torah’s prohibition against working the slave עבודת עבד, the labors of a slave. Rashi records Torat Kohanim’s definition, that the owner cannot assign demeaning labor to the slave. Rashi gives the examples of the slave carrying the master’s paraphernalia for him to the bathhouse or tying his shoes. R. Hirsch notes the master isn’t allowed to lease the slave out to others—we can rent out most items we’re not using. But not a Jewish slave.
Torah Temimah notes that we are allowed to hire other Jews to perform these activities for us, children may or must do this for their parents, students may or should do this for their teachers; the labors are not so inherently demeaning that one Jew can never perform them for another. It is the combination of this Jew having been sold (with halachic ramifications such as the master’s right to give him a non-Jewish slave woman as a second wife) along with the demeaning labor that’s the problem.
That sensitivity is also expressed in the Torah’s ruling out selling this Jew ממכרת עבד, the sale of a slave. Sifra Behar 6;1, recorded by Rambam as the 258th prohibition in his Sefer haMitzvot, is that we may not sell such people in the slave market, may not put them on the auction block. Rambam includes that we cannot call out the slave’s qualifications to attract a crowd of buyers. There may be times a Jew has to undertake slavery, but it cannot be allowed to look like ordinary slavery, from its inception.
A Jew Sold to a Non-Jew
A few verses later, the Torah speaks about a Jew sold to a non-Jew. The Torah notes that the Jew can always be redeemed, by paying the non-Jewish owner the remaining value on the contract. For all that the non-Jew has used the word slavery, it’s actually only a long-term contract lasting until the next yovel, the next Jubilee year.
The impossibility of selling a Jew in perpetuity (or even, as Rav notes in Baba Kamma 116b, forcing him to live up to his contract as a day laborer; if the Jew wants to leave in mid-day, and bear the financial consequences, we cannot stop him, based on this verse, that we are enslaved only to Hashem) means that even a non-Jew cannot own a Jew in the sense of precluding his early redemption.
Being “Slaves” To Hashem
That section closes with verse 55, כל לי בני ישראל עבדים, for the children of Israel are slaves to Me, which can be taken a range of ways. In context, it means that we cannot be sold into irreversible slavery (just as, among Jews, it meant we couldn’t physically hold a day laborer to his commitment to work that day, sell each other in the marketplace, nor work slaves in demeaning ways).
Rabbenu Yonah, Sha’arei Teshuvah III; 167, thinks the verse also obligates Jewish communal leaders to be careful not to demand more fear from the community than necessary for their jobs. To do more would be to foster unnecessary submissiveness from Jews, who are supposed to feel that kind of submissiveness only to Hashem. R. Samson Raphael Hirsch sees that as a function of the service of Hashem being all-encompassing. To serve Hashem precludes being able to serve others at the same time.
Both of those take slavery as a matter of our recognition that we should be ultimately devoted to Hashem and no one else. Aruch haShulchan Orach Chayyim 473, in explaining the Haggadah, takes it further, claiming that the main point of the Haggadah is that the Exodus made us literal slaves to Hashem. Since we were slaves to Paroh, and Hashem took us out, we were automatically converted into slaves of Hashem.
He then cites our verse. For him, the main point of Seder night is to remind us that we are literally slaves to Hashem. A relatively light slavery, but slavery nonetheless.
In Devarim 15; 12-15, the Torah requires slave owners to give gifts to their departing slaves. Rashi notes that it should consist of those of the items the slave worked with during his time in the master’s household that bring ברכה, such as animals and crops. Money itself doesn’t lead to growth, and would not be part of this gift).
At a minimum, it is supposed to be 30 shekel, but Rashi notes the Talmudic understanding that we should increase the gift according to the blessing we received during the slave’s time in our house. Meaning, our sending a slave free should include setting him up with the wherewithal to start a new life, using the tools of blessing the slave had been working with in his time with us. Converting his time with us from slavery into sort of an extended internship, in which he learned skills and abilities and was then given the seed funding, as it were, to build his own successful life afterwards.
All of that, as so often before, makes sense on its own, without introducing the Exodus. But verse 15 says Hashem is commanding us to do this so that we remember we were slaves in Egypt, and Hashem redeemed us from there. Rashi explains that just as Hashem ensured that we left Egypt and the Sea with much wealth, we should do the same for those who we take on as slaves.
Three mitzvot about slavery that remind us of the right way to treat others. More than that, they remind us that Hashem took us out of Egypt in a way that both set us up for a successful financial future and converted us into permanent servants of Hashem, an allegiance that at a minimum cannot be allowed to be superseded by anything else.