In spite of our familiarity with what is often referred to as the Ten Commandments, there are many important questions about them that we don’t often ask. Among the first is, “Why these particular statements? Why were they chosen and not others?”
While the centrality of most of the Ten Statements (which would be a better translation than Commandments) is intuitive, the reason for the inclusion of some of them (e.g., don’t bear false witness, don’t covet) over others (e.g., love God, love your neighbor) is not. As a matter of fact, understanding why these ten were chosen could well lead us to grasp the essence of this venerable text more generally.
One way to answer the question is to note the similarities between the stand at Mount Sinai when these statements were given and the practice of (in this case, mass) conversion to Judaism. By this, we mean that with the hearing of the Decalogue at Mount Sinai, a covenant was entered into, by which the Jews accepted compliance with all the laws of the Torah.
Indeed, this is the reason frequently given for the reading of the book of Ruth on Shavuot, the holiday associated with Ma’amad Har Sinai. Ruth is viewed as the paradigmatic convert to Judaism, and reading about her reminds us that we also once went through something very much akin to her experience at that time of year.
Exploring Ma’amad Har Sinai from this perspective reminds us of one of the laws of conversion: that the potential convert should be exposed to a sample set of laws that include both stringent (more central) laws as well as more lenient (less central) ones. The most likely rationale for this is that the potential convert get a representative understanding of that which he is taking on. If he would hear only the stringent laws, he would be misled into thinking all of Jewish practice is harsh and difficult. Knowing that some laws are less central and come with lesser penalties allows him to realize that Judaism is a doable system for the average person (see Bach on Tur, Yoreh De’ah 268).
In line with this, we could say that the sampling given at Mount Sinai allowed the children of Israel to also better appreciate the Torah’s contours. Like the convert, the Israelites were made to understand that not every law has to come with a death penalty, nor must every law have to be about the underpinnings of civilization. (See Ramban, Shemot 25:1, who makes a similar comparison between the sampling of laws given to potential converts and the early laws given to the Jews, of which the Ten Statements were a subset. See also Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Isurei Biah 14:2, which seems to independently assert that among the information presented to the convert are ideas with a strong affinity to the Decalogue’s first two statements.)
Like the convert, there is no way the Jews could fully know what they were getting into. But by the same token, it would have been unfair to expect them to have no idea whatsoever. Hence, God gave them the fairest possible shot at coming in with understanding. Indeed, we often come to knowledge by taking a sample of an otherwise unwieldy body of information.
Without such a mechanism, we would be paralyzed. And even though a partial paralysis might have been necessary to fully convince the Jews at Mount Sinai, that conviction had to be accompanied by true knowledge of what their new system contained.
The Ten Statements, then, show us the critical need to inform Jews about what it is that is expected of them, well before they are fully able to comprehend it. And it is a shame when this central opportunity is only afforded to the convert.