HaMakom, “The Place”, is one of the names of God, who is in every place. (HaMakom can also be understood as the holy site of the Temple).
What was the nature of Jacob’s prayer?
The essence of his words is, “If God will be with me and guard me, then He will be my God” (Gen. 28:20).
It appears to be selfish: if God looks after me, then I will accept Him as my God. There is an implication: but if He doesn’t look after me and guard me, then He will not be my God.
Before giving a serious answer, let me recall an incident.
A bridegroom told me that he would not come to the synagogue service on the Shabbat before his wedding because Shabbat was his busiest day and he would lose a lot of money if he had to close the shop. Only if God promised to make up the money would he come for an Aufruf.
I couldn’t make that promise on God’s behalf, though I did persuade the young man that his bride was worth it and he should come to shule for her sake.
Think about his argument: “If God does something for me, I will do something for God; but if God doesn’t co-operate, neither will I”. Is that what Jacob was also saying?
Maybe the rabbis are registering a protest against the making-a-bargain theory when they say that what Jacob was doing was praying.
Note what precedes Jacob’s words. Before he speaks God says, “I am with you and I will guard you” (verse 15), and Jacob responds, “Surely the Lord is in this place!” (verse 16).
He doesn’t need to talk about HaShem being his God: he has found this already. Nor does he need to make a bargain (“If God will be with me…”): he already has God’s promise.
So what is Jacob really saying?
His “if” is not conditional, but a prayer: “Please, God, may it be thus, that You will be with me, guard me and be my God”.