Parashat Mishpatim begins with an odd paradox. Instead of beginning to discuss the laws of civility and order as would have been expected, it immediately proceeds with the discussion of the indentured Jewish servant. While one may assume this may be easily explained and dismissed, after a superficial glance at the relative context, one may conclude that it is indeed perplexing.
The Ramban (Ex. 21:2, “Ki Tikneh”) comments that the presentation of the laws regarding “slavery” of Jews is to serve as a reminder of the slavery in Egypt. This is certainly clear, as the Torah itself clearly gives the commemoration of our slavery as the reason to several commandments (See ibid. 21:20, 23: 9, and Deut. 15:15). This poses a rather interesting series of questions. Firstly, why does the Ramban see a need to state this reason if it is inherently obvious based on the progression of the Chumash? Secondly, why does the Torah seem concerned with presenting a reminder immediately after the Exodus? Even more interestingly, do the Jewish people ready to hear that their own society will include slavery? Furthermore, the very idea of a “Jewish slave” is extremely perplexing. Did G-d not just state, before the Ten Commandments, that His people are to become a “Mamlekhet kohanim v’Goy kadosh” (Ex. 19:6)? What is to be the Jewish people's vision of a “dynasty of priests and a holy nation” if any member of that nation can be subjected to the status of slavery? Is this how the Torah chooses to fulfill this vision? Why not begin with the laws of Shabbat; where the people will appreciate its message of rest and relaxation and free from the struggles of labor. What is the true message here?
An answer, according to Rav Morrie Wruble, is that one can only understand a law when one can relate to it. In our time, living under the ideals of Western civilization where slavery has long been abolished, we are unable to perceive the burden of slavery. Had the Jewish people been given these laws regarding indentured servants at a time when they were basking in forty years of freedom from tyranny, they might not have been able to internalize its message. Judaism’s view of servitude is extremely humane in comparison with alternative approaches to slavery, and in order for the Jewish people to learn lessons of conduct from the laws of treating a slave, it was necessary for them to still feel their own lingering horrors of true slavery in their hearts.
Thus, the concept of Jewish slavery does not contradict the vision of a holy nation. Quite the opposite the other nations see how this holy nation treats its slaves, and then the Jews themselves – who can relate to nothing but slavery – can truly appreciate how Judaism perceives its people. Similarly, it is obvious why G-d chose to discuss this matter immediately. There can be no greater relief to a slave to know that the freedom that will exist in their new religion is extended even to the lowest member of society.
In addition, the Ramban now has a clear reason to state that this is a reminder. The Jewish people could mistakenly percieve these laws as merely a message which defines their freedom in terms they are capable of understanding. Rather, these laws also serve to remind us that we were slaves in Egypt, and that we must bear that thought as we follow every other command in the Torah that will follow. Because we were freed from slavery, we must live up to that vision of “Mamlekhet kohanim v’Goy kadosh.”