Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran (Genesis 28:10). The landscape is a blur as Jacob makes his escape from his vengeful brother, Esau.
But Jacob’s headlong flight stills at a certain place, at the place:
And he came upon a certain place and stayed there for the night, for the sun had set.
The Genesis story mentions the place six times in short order—three times before Jacob’s dream and three times immediately after it.
This mysterious place, apparently known but unnamed, fires the imagination of an ancient sage who teaches that this is not a random place handy because of sunset. Rather, God made the sun set early so that Jacob would stop at this certain place. Further fuel for imaginative play: He came upon a certain place literally means, he touched, bumped into, made contact with the place. Hence, the story that Jacob literally bumped into an invisible barrier that made him stop just here—the place where (according to another sage) Abraham had been ready to sacrifice Isaac.
These teachings affirm the importance of the place. But another ancient tradition teaches that the place is not a specific site necessary for divine presence. Rather, the place is divine presence, itself. Place is a name for God: Why do we nickname the Holy One, Place? It is because he is the place of his world, but the world is not his place. (Click here for midrash in Hebrew and English).
In the view of this tradition, God does not take a place. Rather, God is the place. There are no sites for presence, there is only Presence. There is no projection of God into the world, only animation of God who is the world. God takes place.
And he came upon a certain place means that Jacob made contact with The Place, with God. In other words, Jacob prayed. Every place is the place where sight and insight can meet, where outer and inner join.
Rivka Miriam, a modern Israeli poet, offers a poem about her relationship with the place which she does not name. The place has a quality of geography and of divinity, offering presence and partnership. It becomes for her a trusted traveler on a shared journey—she in her movement, the place in its stability. She measures her own progress by the steadfastness of the place which learns to understand her ways. The partnership of the poet and The Place produces mutual growth which Rivka declares to be one/echad—just as God is One:
I was in the place and the place gave me its hand.
In our journeys we traveled together, I walked as the place took a stand.
On our way I rejoiced in its stance, while my steps it would soon understand.
And our mutual care was the growth we could share
which was one and the same, in the end.