In this week’s parasha, Yaakov is on the run from his brother. He stops for the night in Luz:
The מפרשי פשט are very bothered by the פַּתַח in בַּמָּקוֹם. It is a definite article, “in the place”. Why call it the place?
Rashbam says it wasn’t a specific place. Don’t worry about it.
But that’s not very satisfying. Sforno says it was the designated place for travelers (“the rest area by the Luz exit”):
Ibn Ezra, however, has a deeper understanding:
The place means the designated place, known to בני ישראל as they left Egypt, for which there was a tradition from the time of Yaakov:
It had even been the site of one of Avraham’s altars:
Calling בית אל, “המקום”, ”the place“, is significant. The Torah never mentions Jerusalem. It was entirely reasonable that the future בית המקדש would be in בית אל. Rav Medan suggests that שילה, where Yehoshua builds the משכן, was in fact in בית אל (we discussed this in פרשת ויחי תשע״ט). The place in the Torah refers to the place where the שכינה is best felt; where heaven meets earth:
I would call this a פשט קרוב לדרש; it is an “unadorned” reading of the text, as a text, but it expresses the essence of the midrash cited by Rashi:
But the language remains a problem. פגע refers to encountering (people, things):
It shouldn’t refer to places (unless Yaakov tripped and face-planted into the dirt). And כי בא השמש doesn’t fit: “he encountered the place because the sun set”? So Rashi brings another דרש:
In Mishnaic Hebrew, המקום is a common euphemism for ה׳; we use it today in phrases like המקום ינחם אתכם בתוך שאר אבלי ציון וירושלים. The Midrash is claiming that this is the usage here. ויפגע במקום means Yaakov encounters המקום, G-d, at this moment, because the sun has set, and his designated time for תפילה is evening. תפילה is an encounter with the divine.
There is one more hint to this usage in תנ״ך:
Though Ibn Ezra really doesn’t like it:
But in our pasuk, Ibn Ezra’s פשט effectively means “He prayed at the place (where one encounters G-d) for the sun had set”, and Rashi’s דרש means “He prayed to G-d (who is called ”The Place“), for the sun had set. They are not very different; ”The Place" is a metonym for הקב״ה himself.
But Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky is struck by the use of the term המקום as a euphemism for G-d’s name. It’s not a “name of G-d”; you are allowed to erase it or say it in otherwise inappropriate circumstances.
He then makes a radical suggestion:
המקום is exactly like our “השם”; it is placeholder word (literally!) without any meaning of its own. And Rav Kaminetsky says that this is sense of the midrashic use of the word here:
ויפגע במקום is an expression of תפילה that is מבקש רחמים בעת צרה, when we aren’t really in a position to speak to ה׳ ”correctly“, בשם ומלכות. That is Yaakov’s תפילה, תפלת ערבית.
Rabbi Shulman has talked about what it means when we say that תפלת ערבית רשות. He says that there is a halachic requirement to pray when we are in distress (this is the famous argument between Rambam and Ramban, whether there is a requirement to pray when we are not in distress). Maariv represents that prayer. But the truth is that we always need something; if we think we do not need to pray, then we are fooling ourselves. תפלת ערבית is רשות, but it is not optional.
Yaakov’s encounter with ה׳, ויפגע במקום, as night begins and he goes out into גלות, is an expression of that. This is a prayer when he feels distant from הקב״ה (ואנכי לא ידעתי), and so he is not addressing Him directly, but only with a euphemism. But the truth is that this is a פגיעה, an encounter that brings us into virtual contact with ה׳: אכן יש ה׳ במקום. The realization that we are far from ה׳ is what brings us closer.