Rashi paraphrases it: “I appeared to the avot, the patriarchs”.
But surely everyone knows Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were the patriarchs! What does Rashi tell us that we might not have realised?
Some manuscripts have Rashi quoting the verse verbatim, referring to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob by name. This is the wording that Nachmanides must have used when writing his own commentary.
In the Mossad HaRav Kook edition of Nachmanides, the editor, Rabbi Chaim Dov Chavel, remarks that replacing the names by the generic description “the avot” is “an abridgement by some copyist or printer”.
Rabbi Meir Premyshlaner suggests that calling Abraham, Isaac and Jacob “the avot” stresses the crucial part played by each of the avot in the creation of the Jewish people.
The word av means “father”: but in Biblical idiom it also means “chief” or “pioneer”.
Yaval was “the father of those who dwell in tents and tend cattle”; Yuval was “the father of all who handle the harp and pipe” (Gen. 4:20,21).
The Midrash regards these two brothers as “fathers” in another, less admirable sense; Yaval, it says, was the first to build temples to idols and Yuval the first to use music in the service of idolatry (Gen. R. 23).
Now what does this tell us about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? That each was an av, a leading figure in his own right.
It was not just their yichus, their family relationship, that made them important, but their own individual personality and achievements.
A Talmudic statement (Pes. 88a) identifies where each patriarch found God – Abraham on a mountain (Gen. 22:14), Isaac in a field (Gen. 24:63) and Jacob in a house (Gen. 28:19).
Abraham was a pioneer in spirituality, looking up to the mountains and being drawn onwards by lofty thoughts and visions. Isaac was a pioneer in the field, in ethics and human responsibility. Jacob pioneered the concept of the home and human institutions.
Each patriarch was his own person, an av in his own right.