A debate rages within the classical Jewish commentaries as to whether Yitro came to the desert, to join Moshe and the Jewish people, before or after the giving of the Torah. Although his visit is recorded before the account of the revelation, the Torah, our sages note, is not necessarily ordered chronologically – but thematically.
Without entering into the above debate, it seems that the simplest reading of the text indicates that Yitro came after the giving of the Torah: After all, he finds Moshe adjudicating cases from morning till evening; he warns Moshe of the burnout and the difficulty the “one man show” causes for the nation. This encounter seems to make much more sense after the giving of the Torah, once there was a need for solving situations using the newly-received Torah principles.
Why, then, did the Torah place the arrival of Yitro prior to the giving of the Torah? What message are we to derive from this?
Rabbi Shimshon Pincus offers an insight:
Yitro initially approaches the desert encampment with trepidation, announcing through a messenger that he is coming. Slowly but surely, he becomes more comfortable in the Jewish camp, hearing of the splitting of the Sea and the battle with Amalek. According to the Rambam, Yitro’s exclamation “now I know that G-d is the greatest of all the g0ds!” – is a celebration of the precision, measure-for-measure punishment that Moshe described: They (the Egyptians) drowned the Jewish boys, so they are drowned in the Red Sea. Rabbi Pincus goes one step further: he says that Yitro is amazed at the engagement of G-d with his people. G-d, one of whose names indicates His transcendence, is also imminent; He is intimately involved in the lives of His people. We should also add that the Exodus was marked, according to the midrash, by 12 separate paths through the Sea; this, too, exhibits G-d’s engagement with, and appreciation of, the nuanced differences between the tribes.
Rabbi Pincus: This realization should impact on our perception of the Man-G-d laws of the Torah. Too often, we are comfortable with the ethical guidance we get from the laws governing human interaction, but feel “constrained” by the ritual laws. This should not be the case: G-d is a caring and involved parent, and the laws of Kashrut and Shabbat are given by a loving Father who has our interests at heart.
In the ensuing episode, Yitro observes how Moshe is judging cases from day to night, without time for rest; he not only fears for Moshe’s confusion and burnout, but for the inconvenience caused the nation. Now, Yitro is really an outsider. Moshe has just spent 40 days and nights communing with G-d, not eating or drinking, and his father-in-law, former idolatrous priest of Midian arrives, and starts giving advice? It would have been very understandable had Moshe politely declined the offer of help….
Instead, he listens to Yitro and reorganizes the system based on Yitro’s prescription.
This openness and willingness to allow outside perspectives to merge with Moshe’s Torah impressed Yitro: The circle of engagement and involvement was complete: G-d engages Himself in the life of His people, and His people are led by someone who has internalized this quality and lives his life according to it!
This is why Yitro’s arrival, though it comes after the giving of the Torah, thematically precedes Matan Torah:
It brings out our appreciation of G-d’s involvement in our lives and lays a foundation for how we should approach the laws between Man and G-d; secondly, it frames how we should approach our Torah observance: like Moshe, from a position of strength, but with an openness to those influences which help enhance our appreciation and connection to Torah.