One of the important commentators of the 15th century was Don Isaac Abarbanel, a learned and accomplished man who besides being wise in Torah, also served as a finance minister in three countries. Abarbanel also looked for parallels between Mishpatim and the ten commandments. He wrote that the laws of slavery corresponded with the commandment ?Thou shall not kill?: ?When he buys him for slavery by enslaving him all his life? this is killing in life, since the way the Torah describes charity as ?life??so enslavement which is the opposite of charity is compared to killing.?
The Torah indeed sees slavery as a problematic phenomenon. The Torah declares about the Jewish slave: ?For they are My servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt they shall not be sold as a slave is sold? (Leviticus 25, 42). Even the slavery the Torah allows is not standard slavery. A Jewish slave is only a long-term hired worker, not the property of the master, since he is the slave of G-d. And the enslavement of a Jew does not leave him devoid of human rights.
Actually, if we look at the laws of slavery in Mishpatim, we find that they try to make the conditions and status of the slave better: A Jewish slave is automatically freed after six years of slavery; even if he chooses of his own volition to remain in his master?s house, he is freed during the 50th year of ?yovel?. A Jewish maidservant must be freed by the master when she reaches adolescence, unless he or his son marries her and gives her all the rights of a legal wife; a master who hits a non-Jewish slave gets the death penalty; a master who causes his slave to lose a tooth or hurts his eye ? the slave is freed, which stands in contrast to what was customary in the ancient world.
In other portions in the Torah, we learn additional halachot (Jewish laws) whose purpose is to improve the conditions and status of the slave. We must understand that in the ancient world, slavery was prevalent. In Rome, slaves were 30% of the total population. In Sparta, each free person had seventy slaves! Clearly, when there were so many slaves, the life of a slave was not valuable. Slaves became objects that were easily exchanged. The laws of slavery in the Torah do not allow for this. Since every person was created ?in the image of G-d?, a person can never become an object. The inherent holiness of a person is preserved even when he is a slave, and this holiness also led all of humanity to adopt the Torah?s attitude and abolish slavery.
However, we must not forget that in quite a few places around the world, slavery still exists. Based on estimates, approximately 21 million people are still living in a status of forced, or coerced, labor. This is the modern version of slavery, and we, who are guided by the light of Torah, must make sure not to offer any direct or indirect support of this immorality.