Parshat Ki Teitzei tells us not to send a fugitive slave back to his master (23:16-17). Instead, we are to treat him with kindness. While God is helping the unfortunate slave, the owner did pay for the slave, and that makes the slave the owner’s property. Wouldn’t the laws of השבת אבידה require a person to return an escaped slave?
This law is all the more fascinating when one recalls the slavery laws in many countries, including the United States. There were extremely strict fugitive slave laws, and even during the Civil War (until 1863), Union soldiers returned escaped slaves to their Confederate masters.
The solution to this oddity is that Judaism looks at slavery very differently than any other culture. If a Jew is made a slave, it means that he has stolen something and cannot repay his debt, or he is too poor to support himself. In both cases, slavery is actually a form of debt relief, helping the poor man by making him useful to another member of society. Also, if the laws of a Jewish slave are examined, one finds that a slave must be treated well: he must be fed, clothed, and not overworked. If a master strikes and maims his slave, the slave goes free because a violent man is considered unfit by the Torah to own a slave.
One must also consider why a slave would run away in a Jewish society. A slave by definition would be too poor to support himself outside of slavery; after all, poverty and the inability to support himself is what drove the man to slavery in the first place. He would be required by his own hunger to seek out his master soon anyway. This is why the Torah requires us to be charitable and hospitable to a slave. The only reason a slave would run from his master would be if the slave were in danger beyond his own starvation. It is this slave the Torah excuses from returning to his master, showing that the Torah sees a man violent and cruel enough to drive a slave away (and possibly to the slave’s own death from starvation) as unworthy to own a slave.
We see in this law the kindness and generosity inherent in the Torah. Even a slave, seen by all other cultures as the lowliest of men, has his rights and his dignity protected by the Torah.