This Parsha devotes the first eleven verses to the buying and selling of Jewish servants. How can we understand this? How can the same Torah which promotes the dignity of man condone human slavery?
Indeed, without our Oral Law, we would misunderstand this section of the Torah. A massive amount of legal principles and detailed laws were given by G-d orally to Moshe who taught them to the Jewish people. They were only written down later as the Talmud as a result of the Roman occupation and exile. As the Jewish people dispersed, the access to these oral teachings was going to be limited and so the sages wrote these teachings down.
The relationship of the Five Books of Moshe to the Oral Law is beautifully explained by Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch in his brilliant commentary to the Torah.
"This Book (the Five Books of Moshe) was not intended as a primary source of the Law. It was meant for those who were already well-versed in the Law, to use as a means of retaining and reviving, ever anew, the knowledge that they had already committed to memory. It was intended as a teaching aid for teachers of the Law, as a reference to confirm the Oral Law, so that the students should find it easy, with the aid of the Written text before them, to reproduce in their minds, ever anew, the knowledge they had received by word of mouth.
The relationship between the Written Law and the Oral Law is like that between brief written notes taken on a scientific lecture and the lecture itself. Students who attended the oral lecture require only their brief notes to recall at any time the entire lecture. They often find that a word, a question mark, an exclamation mark, a period, or the underscoring of a word is sufficient to bring to mind a whole series of ideas, observations, qualifications, and so forth. But for those who did not attend the instructor's lecture, these notes are not of much use. If they try to reconstruct the lecture solely from these notes, they will of necessity make many errors."
A simple example of this is "an eye for an eye" in Exodus 21:24. Without the Oral Law, we might think that we punish someone who cuts out someone else's eye by cutting out his eye but the Oral Law teaches us that the punishment is only a financial one; we assess the monetary value of the eye and require the perpetrator to pay that to the victim.
Likewise, concerning buying servants, the Oral Law explains who these servants are. They are not "slaves." They are simply "workers" (Avadim) who have stolen something and do not have the money or items to return. The court sells him to raise the funds needed to pay back the victim. He will work as a hired worker for a family for no more than six years. If during this time, he or his family or friends can find the money equal to the theft, they can pay the owner and free this worker.
This servant has to be treated with great respect; he cannot be forced to do harsh labor or demoralizing labor like taking off the owner's shoes, or even carrying his clothes to the bathhouse. He can't be forced to work without good reason. If the servant gets sick and cannot work for the majority of the six year period ( up to four years) those four years are included in the six year period and the worker is not required to make up the time later.
The owner must supply all of his material needs and comforts as well as those of the servant's wife and family. He eats the same food as the owner. If the owner eats fresh bread, he must give the worker the same. If the owner drinks aged wine, he must give the worker the same. The owner must give him the same type of bedding as he has. And more so, if the owner has only one pillow, he must give it to the servant instead of himself. The Gemara sums up this arrangement by saying, " Whoever buys a Jewish servant, it is like he has bought a master over himself."
And let us remember that we are speaking about a thief who either cannot pay or who doesn't want to pay back what he stole, not the most exemplary character around.
Instead of throwing this criminal in jail to be with other criminals, the Torah has a system in which he is rehabilitated. By living with a family, he will be influenced by their positive moral character. He will experience the honor and dignity given to him, and will hopefully change his corrupt ways.
This is just a glimpse of the necessity of our Oral Law and its teachings. Without them we would grossly misunderstand this and many other passages in the Torah.
Have A Good Shabbos!