"...Count them according to their armies." (Num. 1:3)

If Israel were to become the carrier of G‑d's throne [or "merkava"], what would happen to the angels who had performed this function up until now, and who would be deprived of their former status? This is especially problematic, since Israel assumed this role for the next 40 years, not just for a brief interlude. G‑d certainly did not suddenly despise the angels. Rather the angels assumed a subordinate role, similar to the one they had played during the Exodus, when, by serving as the means of transport for Israel, they had in fact been the armies of the Jewish people. He who can ride angels is in an advantageous position. Israel now resumed the lofty position it had held at the time of the Exodus.

The Shechinah spreads from the children of Israel to the angels….

At this point, however, the angels no longer carried the Israelites on their wings, since the Shechinah could be seen in the Tabernacle. In spite of this, the Shechinah manifested itself primarily within the Children of Israel, who are considered part of G‑d Himself. The Shechinah spreads from the children of Israel to the angels, who correspond to them in numbers.

When the Torah says: "count them according to their hosts", the meaning is: "you will enumerate them on account of the angels who are their armies." Just as kings have armies, so, too, does Israel have armies, i.e. the angels.

There are two kinds of armies. One army serves as an instrument of warfare, the other serves as the base for the Shechinah. The fact that G‑d wanted only those over 20 years old to be counted does not mean that His Presence cannot rest on younger people if they are worthy. Nonetheless, since in earthly kingdoms twenty is the age at which soldiers are recruited, so the heavenly army patterns itself on the same system.

…a corresponding number of angels will serve as their army.

There is one vital difference, however: The Heavenly army (Israel), though mobilized, will not actually fight. On the contrary, the angels who had so far been the transporters of the throne of G‑d will henceforth be the army fighting on behalf of Israel, who had now themselves become the bearers of G‑d's throne. This is the meaning of the words: "You will count them according to their armies"; when you will count the Israelites, a corresponding number of angels will serve as their army. All this was meant to last for the duration of the people's wanderings in the desert. The words "their army" is now understandable, since the angels already had served Israel in that capacity.

[Adapted by Eliyahu Munk.]