In communities today, we suffer from a profound welfare problem. There are countless people who do not work, and who have never worked. Instead, they rely on handouts of one kind or another. And there is no prospect of ever achieving gainful employment. In some cases, it because they lack skills. In other cases, it is because of low expectations: society does not demand that they make a living without recourse to charity or welfare payments.
While the Torah wants us to practice loving-kindness, and we are especially commanded to care for the orphan and the widow, it is not a commandment to blindly give charity to those who are capable of work. Indeed, in the ancient world, it would have been fantastical that there would come a time when society would be so very wealthy that even those who are not willing to work do not starve to death.
There was a common solution in the ancient world for when people could not afford food. The Torah tells us that the Egyptian people, when faced by the famines in Joseph’s time, ended up selling themselves to Pharoah. In a nutshell, they chose to become slaves. And in so doing, they lived.
If we did not have welfare today, then people would do much the same: they would offer themselves as indentured servants in return for life’s necessities. But servitude can be much, much more than this, and on both sides.
Consider that among people who lack skills, often the best way to acquire skills is to work as an apprentice. Trade skills such as plumbing or electrical work (or even glass blowing) are widely taught in this way, and it works well. Classically, of course, a professional might take on one or more apprentices to help with his work.
The problem is that in today’s world, lazy people don’t even look for work. They are not prepared to look for things like apprenticeships, because they don’t actually need to acquire skills in order to feed and clothe and house themselves. It is easier to beg and/or collect welfare. Rock bottom today is not low enough to make people seek to better themselves.
Slavery in the Torah was designed specifically to help people out who had hit rock bottom. Limited to 6 years, and with very strict rules on the limits of the slaveowner’s authority, a Jewish person could offer up his or her services as a slave. And for a period of time, they would have food, and clothes, and shelter. They would also be able to learn from their more successful master – essentially, an apprentice program. And at the end of 6 years, the slave would be free, richer than when he came in, and armed with a new set of skills.
Think, then, of the Torah version of slavery not as a concession to the morés of the time. The Torah does not talk of slavery so that we would eventually outlaw it. The Torah talks of slavery because it is a much more positive vision than today’s welfare state of what to do with able-bodied people who need to learn professional or life skills in order to stand on their own two feet.
Nowhere in the ancient Jewish conception of slavery was the idea that people should be treated as anything less than people as completely in the image of G-d as any other. Instead, this six year apprenticeship program, through work instead of through begging, was a much more ennobling method of giving people a hand-up, helping them get back on their feet with an independent means of making a living.