“What is the reason that in the first incident [which occurred 40 years before the second] G-d instructed Moses to strike the rock, while in the second incident He insisted exclusively on verbal communication?….
When the Jewish people departed from Egypt after decades of physical and psychological oppression…[having been] steeped for two centuries in the immoral culture of Egyptian pagan society…they had developed a profound obstinacy and roughness…[which is why they were] constantly rebelling…
According to the Kabbalah, the generation that departed Egypt possessed extraordinarily lofty souls… But before any refinement could be achieved, the outer ‘rock’ needed to be cracked… At this…point in Jewish history, smiting the ‘rock’ was appropriate, indeed critical. Their hearts were too dense to be pierced in any other way.
Forty years later, their children and grandchildren, born and raised in liberty and in a highly spiritual environment, developed a sense of selfhood quite different from their parents and grandparents. Forty years…in the presence of …divine miracles, leaves a dent. The nation had spiritually matured.
But suddenly, they, too, began to lament and kvetch about a lack of water… They do not express their craving to return to Egypt. They are simply terrified of the prospects of death by thirst. G-d was sensitive to the nuanced distinctions.
[G-d] commanded Moses to speak to the rock, rather than strike it… The model of smiting must be replaced with the model of teaching and inspiring.”