Yaacov’s escape from his home was perilous, full of insecurity, on account of the threat from his brother, Esau, and from the great uncertainty which faced him. This precarious beginning is tangible in the Torah’s description of his first night: “And he (Jacob) happened upon (vayifga) a certain place (ba’makom) and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set, and he took one of the stones of the place and put it at his head and he laid down at that place…” (Genesis 28:11)
Since the Torah leaves the designated place unidentified, one sage, true to the rabbinic tendency to attempt to identify that which the Torah leaves anonymous, designated the “place” where Yaakov lodged as the Temple Mount (Mount Moriah), seeking to associate Yaakov with Judaism’s holiest place. Rabbi Ammi, a prominent 3rd century Talmudic sage who lived in Eretz Yisrael, opted for an entirely different understanding of the word “Makom – the Place”, taking it instead to be a reference to God (the Omnipresent): “Rav Huna said in the name of Rabbi Ammi: ‘Why did the sages assign to the Holy One Blessed be He the name ‘Makom’? For He is the Place of the world and His world is not His place.’ This is to be learned from the verse: ‘Look, there is a place with Me.’ (Exodus 33:21)” (Genesis Rabbah 68:9)
Rabbi Ammi’s interpretation is worthy of unpacking. For him, Yaakov’s monumental journey called for a meeting with the Divine. And so, the word “makom” which is normally understood to refer to a specific place became a reference to God. Now, in earlier rabbinic literature, when the word “Makom” is used as a reference to God, it likely referred to specific place like “Shamayim – Heaven” – the place where God dwelled. (See E. E. Urbach, Hazal, pp. 54-55) Rabbi Ammi proposes an entirely different sort of theological understanding of God. God is not contained in a place; nor is God to be identified with the world or universe, rather, the universe is contained in God – “He is the place of the universe”. God is omnipresent (all-Present) This theological outlook is sometimes referred to in our day as panentheism. In other words, God is not the world. God is both distinctive from the world but the world is found in God.
What is important to note in Rabbi Ammi’s description is that human ideas about how to describe and understand God evolve as our human understanding changes. For Rabbi Ammi, Yaakov’s existential crisis called for an understanding of God which could meet Yaakov’s challenges and give him the strength and fortitude to carry on. His new understanding of God as being omnipresent met this need.