Curiously, there are more Torah portions named after non-Jews (Noah, Yitro, Balak) than there are Torah portions named after Jews (Hayye Sarah, Pinhas). And even more curiously, there are no Torah portions named after the patriarchs or Moses. A sweeping answer that explains this mystery is elusive. Nevertheless, there is ample reason to believe that at least the portion named after Yitro is justifiable because of the significance of the message derived from his life.
After joining with the Israelites, Yitro – already identified as a high priest of Midian (Exodus 2:16) – offers burnt offerings to God (Exodus 18:12). Making sacrifices to God is, in itself, hardly unusual. However, Rabbi Eliyahu HaKohen of Izmir (d. 1729), in his commentary “Shevet Musar” notes that the specifics are lacking. How many animals were placed on the altar? What kind? How old? These particulars are usually included in the description of sacrifices yet here the particulars are absent. Rabbi Eliyahu concludes that the reason for omitting the particulars is that they are unnecessary in this case. In fact, including them would have diminished from the key message. The singular sacrifice that Yitro made was to abandon his position, his religion, and his homeland and take up with the Israelites. His offerings were less important than his newfound commitment.
Thus, the absence of sacrificial details is not a textual lapse but an intentional exclusion designed to emphasize the more significant aspect of Yitro’s association with the people of Israel. The Torah wants us to recognize the praiseworthiness of those who link their lives and their future with the Jewish people.
Further, the only other place in scripture where the details of sacrifices go unmentioned, adds Rabbi Eliyahu, is in the story of Jacob’s return to Beth El (Genesis 35:1,7). Here too the theme is commitment: Jacob’s recommitment to the God of his ancestors and the Promised Land.
Hence, naming a portion after Yitro is thoughtful and not thoughtless. What defines a worthy person is the depth of his or her commitment to a worthy cause.