Parshas Mishpatim: Sforno - Slavery as a Punishment
The Torah imposes various punishments for different classes of aveiros. Some are meted out by Bais Din and some by Hashem. Yet one stands out and is implemented only in a single instance. A person who steals and does not have money to pay back is sold into slavery. This seems to be a harsh punishment as a slave exists in class somewhere between a human and a piece of property, albeit a Jewish slave is treated with special dignity. Why such a harsh crime, especially since if he had the money to return he receives no punishment at all under most circumstances.
The Sforno explains that if there were no punishment for stealing other than returning the theft, the poor people would run rampant stealing from the rich. And why not, since there would be no recourse as the poor people have nothing to pay back with.
Aside from protection of society, there must be a fit between the crime and the punishment and justice must shine through. Maybe we can offer that in a society where money is everything, a poor person feels like he is not even human. The whole basis for humanity and inclusion into society eludes him. By stealing he shows that he believes only money can buy him stature. He fails to realize that one's wealth is not the barometer of humanity. A person is blessed with a Neshama that gives him the strength he needs to accomplish his mission in life, to grow his spirit and attain true wealth with which he can go home once his life is over.
A person that steals has totally missed the point of the human experience and has forfeited his right to participate in society. The Torah teaches him a lesson by truly stripping him of humanity and selling him into slavery. Only then will he see the error of his ways and yearn to use his capabilities to make something real of himself, and not what society demands of him.