Shortly we will finish reading the first Book of Beresheet (Genesis,) and begin the second book of the Torah, Sh'mot (Exodus.) While each book of the Torah carries important messages, the Book of Exodus is of utmost importance as it talks about the events that led the family of Jacob and his twelve sons to become the nation of Israel. This transformation took place over the course of 400 years.
But the way G-D chose to create the Israelite nation is a little peculiar. The original idea of coming to Egypt to begin with was to ride out the seven years of famine in a place where food was still available.
Why didn't Jacob's family return back to Canaan, their homeland after the seven years of famine had passed? Why be strangers unnecessarily in a foreign land?
No doubt G-D had a plan. He wanted the Israelites to become a multitude in Egypt. Their sheer numbers threatened Pharaoh so much he saw no other alternative but enslavement.
But why did the plan include having us suffer through slavery on our way to becoming the nation of Israel?
Perhaps the answer is that national attitudes are forged through common experiences. Suffering together through a long, cruel period of slavery caused the Israelites to understand and internalize deep in their souls the enormous value of liberty and justice. This became one of the most important parts of our spiritual makeup, always worth fighting for throughout our long history.
However, because of other nations' influences the institute of slavery did exist in ancient Israel. Nevertheless, there were very strict laws protecting the slaves. Foreign slaves were acquired through victories over enemies whereas Hebrew slaves were acquired because of debt that had to be repaid. Hebrew slaves had to be set free after seven years no matter how large the sum still owed.
While foreign slaves remained slaves forever, the concept of slavery was much different in Israel than in the rest of the Biblical world.
To begin with, there is no Hebrew word for slave, not the way we understand the term. The closest word is "Eved," a derivative of the word "Oved, a worker. Eved translates as one who works without getting paid. The statues of an Eved, Hebrew or foreigner, was like that of a regular worker with all the legal protection from cruelty and inhumane treatment. Especially since the Jewish people were designated by G-D as carriers of the Light of Freedom, the Eved was never considered to be property and had to be treated as a regular worker. Therefore, the Torah issued a stern warning against mistreatment of slaves.
Consequently, slaves were considered as part of the maintenance crew of the household or working crew out in the field. Many slaves most likely had a better life as "slaves" than as free people. An echo of this fact can be seen in a biblical law stating that if a Hebrew slave refuses to go free after seven years because he feels comfortable in his slave status, the owner of the house must shame him by cutting his ear lobe...
As the Israelites gained an even deeper understanding of the sacredness of freedom, the practice of owning slaves became quite rare. This is true especially during the second Temple. Slavery was eventually abolished altogether many centuries before the rest of the world caught up. (or is still catching up...)
Looking back over history, perhaps the reason for creating the Jewish nation through hundreds of years of slavery was necessary to create a unique people who would be able to always carry the ideals of liberty and justice no matter the circumstances. This we have done for thousands of years even during some extremely cruel centuries.
May we continue to do so...