In the beginning of the Parsha, the Torah records that Yitro reunited with Moshe in the desert:
Jethro priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people, how the LORD had brought Israel out from Egypt. So Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took Zipporah, Moses’ wife, after she had been sent home, and her two sons—of whom one was named Gershom, that is to say, “I have been a stranger in a foreign land”; and the other was named Eliezer, meaning, “The God of my father was my help, and He delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh.” Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought Moses’ sons and wife to him in the wilderness, where he was encamped at the mountain of God. He sent word to Moses, “I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you, with your wife and her two sons.” (Shemot 18:1-6)
At what point in the story line did this event occur? Ibn Shuaib quotes a debate among the commentaries on this issue.
According to Ibn Ezra, Yitro joined the Jewish people in the desert after the revelation at Sinai. According to Ramban, Yitro joined the Jewish people after the splitting of the sea and the war with Amalek, and before the revelation at Sinai.
Both of these opinions have a basis in the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 24a). Nonetheless, Ibn Shuaib defends the opinion of Ramban for primarily three reasons:
The Torah itself presents the arrival of Yitro as preceding the revelation at Sinai. The story of Yitro is in Chapter 18, and the story of Sinai is Chapter 19 and 20.
The Torah introduces Yitro’s journey as being the result of hearing the news of “how the LORD had brought Israel out from Egypt.” This sounds a lot like the splitting of the sea, and even the war with Amalek that happened as the Jews left Egypt. If Yitro only came after the giving of the Torah at Sinai, why would he delay so long if what motivated him was the events of the Exodus?
If Yitro only arrived after the giving of the Torah at Sinai, then that would mean that Moshe’s wife Tzippora and their two sons also arrived after Sinai. This would suggest that they missed the revelation at Sinai! Ibn Shuaib writes that it’s not possible that Moshe’s own children would have missed this experience.
What then motivated Ibn Ezra to argue that Yitro arrived after Sinai. It certainly seems like the evidence is stacked against him.
Ibn Shuaib presents a compelling argument, which Ibn Ezra himself suggests: The Torah seeks to contrast Yitro and Amalek.
At the end of Parshat Beshalach we read about the attack of Amalek against the Jewish people. Amalek is bad, and we are commanded to remember their cruelty and fight against them. Perhaps after reading such a story we would be compelled to believe that the non Jewish world as a whole is always our enemy? Maybe Amalek is representative of the non Jewish attitude to the Jewish people?
To dispel this belief, the Torah immediately tells us about Yitro. Don’t think that all gentiles are like Amalek! Yitro was a good guy, and he represents the good in humanity. Although we are to view Amalek as our eternal enemy, we are to view Yitro and his descendants as friends. In fact, when the Jewish people enter the Land of Israel, the descendants of Yitro receive a portion in the land.
Therefore, according to Ibn Ezra, even though the arrival of Yitro happened later in the story line, it is recorded here to teach a lesson about Jewish-Gentile relations. The message needs to be taught at this juncture due to the recent events with Amalek.
Although Ibn Shuaib prefers the approach of Ramban, there is an important lesson to be learned from this approach of Ibn Ezra: There are good people in the world, and we must respect them!