When a Yid seeks to mend his ways and begin a new chapter in avodas Hashem, he faces two distinct choices.
One path is to focus on rectifying the past and devote himself to doing earnest teshuvah for the sins he committed. Only after he has managed to achieve this goal and fully atoned for his misdeeds does he begin to concentrate on the positive — doing mitzvos and good deeds. For, according to this approach, as long as he has not properly done teshuvah on the past, any mitzvos or Torah study he would do in the present would be lacking.
The second approach is not to wait, but instead to concentrate primarily on the present, doing teshuvah through davening with kavanah, learning Torah and accumulating as many mitzvos as possible.
The Divrei Yechekel says that Yaakov Avinu and Yosef Hatzaddik had different views of which approach was preferable.
Yosef Hatzaddik felt that emphasizing the rectification of the past took precedence. He therefore placed Menashe under the right hand of Yaakov; he had given the name Menashe on account of the fact that “Hashem made me forget all my hardship…”
The initial effort must be to forget the “hardship,” — the misdeeds – through teshuvah, and only then to proceed to concentrate on the present and future.
Yaakov Avinu, however, maneuvered his hands to place his right hand on Ephraim, who received this name because Yosef had said, “Hashem made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.” He felt that the primary focus must be through being “fruitful,” — doing more and more mitzvos and maasim tovim.
“Not so, father,” Yosef told Yaakov Avinu. “For this is the firstborn” – this approach of doing teshuvah on the past is preferable, and therefore “place your right hand on his head.”
But Yaakov Avinu refused.
“I know, my son, I know — he too will become a nation, he too will be great.” I am well aware that your approach is a very good one. “Yet, his smaller brother shall become greater than he.” For the approach of Yosef of first doing teshuvah for the past is a very difficult one, and although the other approach is “smaller,” — a lesser madreigah — it is still preferable, for the approach of focusing on doing mitzvos in the present and the future is far less daunting, and therefore, “his offspring will fill nations” — there will be many baalei teshuvah.
Many have wondered why Yaakov Avinu chose to maneuver his hands rather than ask Mensashe and Ephraim to switch positions.
The Ksav Sofer explains that after observing what had occurred when he had shown favoritism to Yosef over his older brothers, Yaakov Avinu didn’t wish to cause Menashe to become jealous of his younger brother. Therefore, Yaakov switched hands instead — something that Menashe wouldn’t even notice.
Harav Binyamin Mendelson, zt”l, the Rav of Kommiyous offers another explanation:
Yaakov Avinu and Yosef Hatzaddik had two distinct approaches, two paths in avodas Hashem regarding this matter. Through choosing to maneuver his hands instead of telling Menashe and Ephraim to change places, Yaakov Avinu was teaching us that if you disagree with the viewpoint of one over another, it is perfectly appropriate for you to follow your particular path of avodas Hashem — but don’t seek to force it on someone else who disagrees with you.
Yaakov Avinu switched his own hands — but allowed Menashe and Ephraim, who had been positioned by their father, to stay where they were.