The Torah Way or the Highway.
Mishpatim (Exodus 21-24 )
If you buy a Jewish bondsman, he shall work for six years... (Ex. 21:2)
The Parsha begins by discussing the case of a thief who is unable to repay that which he has stolen. The thief is sold into servitude by Beis Din, a Jewish court, in order to reimburse the victim of his crime with the money from the sale. The Parsha then lists many other laws, including lending money, returning lost objects, helping another unload his animal. Why does the Torah choose to begin with the laws of servitude?
In civil law, when a man has been caught stealing (numerous times), he is punished with imprisonment. As it states in section 117 of the crime act:
"Whosoever commits larceny, or any indictable offence by this Act made punishable like larceny, shall, except in the cases hereinafter otherwise provided for, be liable to imprisonment for five years."
Once in prison the thief can expect to meet all types of people: Steve who robbed banks, Ken who was a drug dealer, and Rob who murdered a number of people. When his sentence is finally up, he comes out of prison with no means to feed and clothe his family. However, he now has a wide variety of professions with which to earn his keep: he can rob banks, deal drugs, and kill. He comes out of jail a worse person than when he went in!
The Torah understands this thief more deeply. He is stealing because he has no money, and we must therefore try to build him up. He'll work for someone for a few years and have what to eat. Furthermore, his wife and kids will get supported by the master. His master will be a role model for him, and he will realize that you don't need to steal to make money. When he's finally ready to leave, his master will send him off with presents to help him start life anew. After all this, he will be ready to reenter society as a fully fledged Jew, and he won't steal anymore! The Parshah therefore starts with the laws of slaves so we can see the kindness and mercy that God shows - and demands of us - towards even those who are probably regarded as the least worthy members of society.(1)
1. Based on the Darkei Mussar.