The Torah in Parashat Ki-Teitzei issues the command not to return fugitive slaves to their masters: “Do not hand over to his master a servant who escapes to you from his master; he shall reside with you in your midst, in the place which he chooses, in whichever of your towns that is good for him” (23:16-17).
The commentators explain that the Torah refers here to the case of a slave of a foreign master who seeks to join Am Yisrael, and who must be given the opportunity to do so, rather than being forcibly sent back to his master. The command to allow the servant to live “in the place which he chooses” is understood by the Ramban as a warning not to force this refugee into servitude. Once he seeks a life of freedom as a member of Am Yisrael, he must be granted his wish.
There might also be deeper significance to the phrase “ba-makom asher yivchar” (“in the place which he chooses”) in this verse. This phrase brings to mind other instances of this expression earlier, in Parashat Re’ei (chapter 12), as well as a later instance, in Parashat Ki-Tavo (26:2). Wherever this phrase is used, it refers to the site chosen by God as the exclusive site of sacrificial worship – the Beit Ha-mikdash – the only exception occurring here, in the context of the refugee slaves (an observation made by Rav Amnon Bazak). Curiously, the Torah speaks of the slave’s right to choose a place of dwelling with the same formulation that is used in reference to God’s designation of a site of sacrificial worship. Through this parallel, the Torah perhaps seeks to underscore the extent of the respect we must have to the refugee’s wishes. Just as we recognize that only God decides where and how we must serve Him, and we have no right to choose on our own how He should be worshipped, similarly, we must not assume the right to impose our will upon the fugitive slave. We must respect his decisions of where to live and which profession to pursue, without imposing our will upon him. This special emphasis is required because people might have otherwise assumed that because of his stature as a servant, they have the right to assert control over him. The Torah therefore impresses upon us that all members of society, regardless of their socioeconomic status, deserve to have their wishes respected – no less than God demands that we respect and fulfill His wishes.