Divine Dictator or Populist King
After Joseph told his brothers about his dreams, which seemed to foretell Joseph’s eventual rise to greatness and leadership over his brothers, the brothers responded, “Will you reign over us? Will you rule us?” (Gen. 37:8). Joseph’s brother were not simply waxing poetic by repeating their question twice, they were alluding to two different concepts. The first question asks if Joseph thought he will become a melech (king) over his brothers, while the second questions asks him if he will be a moshel (ruler). What is the difference between a king and a ruler?
Some explain that a melech is the king on top, while a moshel is a governor or the like to whom the king has delegated certain powers or sovereignty. However, the consensus view understands that a melech and moshel are both the same in terms of their position of power; they only differ in how they got there.
The commentators explain that a melech is someone whose ascent to the throne is commissioned directly by the people. In other words, if the people willingly elect to anoint someone as their leader, he is called a melech. If the people do not necessarily accept their leader’s sovereignty willingly—rather he takes it from them by force—then he is called a moshel. Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik of Switzerland explains that for this reason the Midrash (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer ch. 16) says that a groom is comparable to a melech. Just as even the most Machiavellian melech must constantly make concessions to his people in order that they lovingly accept upon themselves his sovereignty, so must a groom always act with patience and reliability, so that his wife will continuously want to remain his partner.
The Vilna Gaon expands on this approach in differentiating between a melech and moshel. He writes that the melech arises from within the camp of the masses. The melech possess no inherent advantage over anyone else, except for the fact that the people had decided to recognize him as king, otherwise, he is their equal. The moshel, on the other hand, serves as a leader because of his abilities, not just because of the people’s whims. The moshel proves his worth in battle and the like, showing that he is more talented than everyone else. Using his abilities, he grabs ahold of his constituency and forces them under his rule. This approach explains why the Jews offered Gideon the position of moshel (Jud. 8:22). That is, even though the masses willingly offered him this leadership position, he would have still been called a moshel, not a melech, because they only offered him the position due to his acknowledged military prowess.
The term melech is also applied to G-d, the ultimate King of the Universe. Interestingly, the Talmud (Rosh HaShanah 16a) justifies the practice of reciting during the Mussaf prayer of Rosh HaShanah different Biblical verse that speak of G-d’s Kingship, by explaining that G-d said, “you shall say before Me [verses about] kingship in order to make Me king (melech) over you”. By saying these verses, the Jewish people affirm their acceptance of G-d’s role as King of the Universe. But the Talmud assumed that saying those verses is not just an affirmation of accepting God’s kingship, but rather makes Him into a king. Why is G-d’s kingship contingent on the Jews’ acceptance of His sovereignty? Based on the above, the answer is clear: By showing their willing acceptance of G-d’s kingship, the Jews are consolidating G-d’s role as a melech of the world, as opposed to simply a dictatorous moshel.
The Vilna Gaon takes note of an apparent contradiction between two verses cited at the end of the Aleinu prayer. In one verse, we say, “For to G-d is the kingship (melucha), and He rules (moshel) over the nations” (Ps. 22:29). This verse implies that G-d holds two roles: for the Jews, He is considered a melech because they willingly accept His rule, and for the other nations of the world, He is a moshel because He rules them despite their objections. Afterwards, however, we say, “G-d will be the king (melech) over the entire world—on that day G-d will be [recognized as] one and His name as one.” (Zech. 14:9). This implies that He will be a melech over the entire world. The answer must be that while in contemporary times, not everyone accepts G-d’s role in the world, in the future Messianic Era, when all truth will be finally revealed, everyone will recognize His role and accept it upon themselves—so G-d will universally be a melech, not a moshel.