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. Rather, 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 question asks him if he will be a moshel (ruler). What is the difference between a melech, aking, and a moshel, 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 a moshel are both the same in terms of their position of power; they differ only 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, but 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 d’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 too 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 melech and moshel. He writes that the melech arises from within the camp of the masses. The melech possesses 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 hold of his constituency, and forces them under his rule. This approach explains why the Jews offered Gideon the position of moshel (Judges 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 offered him the position only due to his acknowledged military prowess.
The term melech is also applied to
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