In the second Posuk of this week's Parsha, we read "... אברהם אל יצחק ואל יעקבוארא אל," "And I appeared to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov..." (שמות ו:ג'). Commenting on the word וארא, and I appeared, Rashi (שם) writes אל האבות, to the forefathers, as if to explain that Hashem had appeared to the forefathers. This seems a little confusing. From the text itself, it is already perfectly clear that Hashem addressed the forefathers. What then is the חידוש here? What do we learn from this comment of Rashi?
Some suggest that there is a textual mistake here. Rabbi Baruch HaLeivi Epstein, like Rabbeinu Eliyahu Mizrachi, writes that originally, Rashi's intent was simply to introduce his next comment with a new דיבור המתחיל, a new opening phrase, as usual, but he shortened it to save space. Instead of writing וארא אל" אברהם אל יצחק ואל יעקב," he wrote simply וארא אל" האבות," not spelling their names out. In later years, however, the printers who published the text mistakenly thought that since the word האבות isn't in the Posuk, it must have been Rashi's commentary on the word וארא which appears before it. Therefore, the words אל האבות were included as part of Rashi's commentary on the word וארא, and all the printers subsequently have copied this error which appears in our Chumashim to this very day.
Others, however, suggest a different approach. The Toldos Yitzchak notices the fact that the text itself could have read וארא אל אברהם יצחק ויעקב"," without the extra word "אל" appearing before Yitzchak's name and before Yaakov's name. According to him, Rashi is therefore stressing that these three "אל"s must each refer to one of the Avos, because their attributes are the vehicle that takes Bnai Yisrael out of Mitzrayim, and together, these words hint at that which will save Bnai Yisrael. The Gematria, the numerical value, of the word אל"" three times is 93, which is also represented by the word מגן. The word מגן means protector, but also is a hint to the angels מיכאל, גבריאל and נוריאל, whose initials spell out the word מגן, and who are Malachim with the attributes of the Avos. Avraham was like מיכאל, exhibiting the attribute of חסד, kindness, Yitzchak was like גבריאל, embodying גבורה, might, and Yaakov manifested תפארת, glory, like נוריאל. The seemingly extra "אל"s therefore hint at the fact that the Avos and their merits are the channels though which Hashem will take Bnai Yisrael out of Mitzrayim and be their מגן, their protector.
The Chasam Sofer offers a very different explanation. The word האבות could indeed be understood to mean "the forefathers," but it could also mean "those who desire (to be close to Hashem)," from the root אבה, meaning "to want" or "to desire." Rashi is therefore explaining, according to him, that Hashem is saying here, "I have appeared to those who desire me." The lesson is that Hashem becomes close only with those who want to be close with Him. In Parshas Shemos, Hashem describes Himself as "אהי-ה אשר אהי-ה" (שמות ג:י"ד). The Ramban translates this phrase to mean that Hashem was saying, "if you will be with me, then I will be with you." "If you will open your hand," Hashem says, "so too, I will open my hand to you." We see from all of this that a seemingly simple and obvious comment of Rashi can teach us a great deal if we dig a little deeper into its meaning.