In perashat Yitro we were given the Ten Commandments, and Moshe was established as the true prophet of G-d in the presence of the entire nation. In this week's perasha, the Torah begins to enumerate many of the detailed mitzvot and laws. The first mitzvah that appears is that of the Eved Ivri - the indentured, Jewish servant. He is to work for six years, and in the seventh year he is to be sent free (Shemot 21:2).
The first question that one could ask is why is this mitzvah the first mentioned? Wouldn't it make more sense to begin with the laws of damages, or perhaps the laws pertaining to lending money? Furthermore, the whole emphasis here is on how long the servant has to work and when he is released, as well as what to do in the event that he wishes to remain a servant. It seems that the central issue is that of his coming and going, or, in other words, his state of being in servitude versus his being free. There doesn't seem to be much focus at all on the laws pertaining to his duration as an indentured servant. Indeed, elsewhere we are taught about that matter. but for some reason, here it is not really addressed.
This mitzvah of sending the Eved Ivri free in the seventh year became a point of major unrest in the time of the Prophets. What is abundantly clear, though, is that this mitzvah is not simply one of the many details; it clearly has a central function in the overall observance of Torah.
Why is it that the Jewish People were told about this particular mitzvah on the day of their redemption?
Perhaps it was in order to warn them of a basic human flaw. A person who is put down and insulted will very likely express his anger and hurt by doing the very same thing to someone else. A serf in the feudal system in general suffered terribly. However, if he somehow would make it to the top and achieve the stature of a noble; he would probably treat his ex-fellow serfs in the very same way that he was treated (and, indeed, in many of the popular uprisings during the time of serfdom, we Jews - who were as downtrodden as any - were amongst those who suffered the most). This serious flaw in human nature is a double-edged sword: people who suffer hurt are likely to hurt others, and people who suffer are likely to completely forget about their suffering once they are removed from it, thereby preventing them from feeling empathy for those that are still suffering.
For one to be successful in fulfilling one's interpersonal obligations - for one to treat others with care and sensitivity, this shortcoming must be corrected. On the day that we left Egypt, G-d warned us to not forget what it was like to suffer slavery; to be aware that although we attained freedom as a People, there will be times in the future when we will encounter individuals who are experiencing difficult times. We must remember what it feels like to deal with pain and be sensitive and empathetic to those that are suffering. When the Eved Ivri has completed his obligation of working for six years, we must send him free. We must remember what it is like to be in servitude and not detain him for a moment longer than is required.
A similar idea appears later in the perasha. We are warned to not cause pain to a Ger, a convert, and to not take monetary advantage of him (Shemot 22:20). The prohibition against causing pain to and taking monetary advantage of others is in fact a general mitzvah. not exclusive to the convert. Yet, the Torah gives a special mitzvah about this in regard to the convert because he is a newcomer. He is unfamiliar with the People, the Land, and the language. So, we are told, "because you were sojourners in the Land of Egypt" - you know what it feels like to be a stranger, to feel out of place. You know how hard it is to deal with the difficulty of trying to fit in and gain social acceptance and security. Be extra careful with the convert for he is in that very same emotionally (and often financially) precarious situation. Go out of your way and make an extra special effort to make him feel accepted and respected as a full-fledged member of the nation. Be sensitive and empathetic; be caring.
The bulk of Mishpatim deals with mitzvos pertaining to how people relate to one another, particularly in respect to monetary laws. The opening mitzvah establishes for us the foundational principle that is necessary for the complete fulfillment of these obligations: sensitivity and caring, awareness and empathy. In order to properly relate to others and treat them with respect and dignity, one must first acquire the characteristic of sensitivity.
Most people would probably not be too happy if someone broke their object out of carelessness ... so how careful are we when it comes to not damaging someone else's object? When we rent a car, for example, are we as careful with it as we would be with our own car?
Indeed, our Sages teach us, "The money of your fellow should be as dear to you as your own” You know what it's like to worry about financial stability, so apply that knowledge to the way you act with others!
Learn from your experience; don't forget what it feels like, and treat others in a way that reflects that awareness. Particularly when one becomes wealthy or powerful does it become all the more urgent to strengthen this trait. The Torah is teaching us to be wary of this natural, human failing. Be careful! Do not forget what it is like; treat others with sensitivity, with awareness of their plight, of their needs; be caring and empathetic. Don't subject your fellow to one moment more of servitude than is required, for you know what it is like to taste the bitterness of slavery; when the time comes, willingly and joyously send him to his freedom.