In an article for Vayishlach, 5773, Rabbi Cherki explains Jacob’s fear of destroying holy “sparks” among other nations.
Was Jacob afraid before his meeting with Esau because he had committed a specific sin which might cause him to be punished? A cursory glance at the words of the Talmud might lead us to think so:
“Rabbi Yaacov Bar Idi asked: It is written, ‘Behold, I will be with you and I will protect you wherever you go’ [Genesis 28:15]. Why then is it written, ‘And Jacob was very much afraid’ [32:8]? The answer is that he said, Perhaps sin will influence the outcome.” [Sanhedrin 98b].
However, this seems to be contradicted by the quote given by Rashi (for his sources, see Torah Shlomo): “I lived with Laban (‘garti’) – but I kept the 613 commandments” [32:5]. This implies that Jacob was not guilty of any sin.
We must therefore look for Jacob’s sin in the continuation of the passage. Jacob says, “I delayed my return until now” [32:5]. He remained in the exile for a longer time than was necessary just to complete his mission. We can assume that Jacob did not stay an additional six years in Laban’s house out of monetary greed but in order to fulfill the promise given to Abraham, “And afterwards they will leave with great wealth” [15:14]. At this point the Torah is very briefly noting one of the hidden goals of the exile: to gather together the holy values that are hidden within the cultures of the other nations – what is known in terms of the Kabbala as “gathering the sparks.” In Laban’s house these values were embedded within the sheep. Jacob therefore remained to make sure that he did not leave even one spark behind, so that this would indeed be the very last exile. Since it is very hard to determine if any sparks remain, Jacob puts himself in danger by taking on himself the role which he, as a holy man, is willing to accept – that he must remain in exile for a while longer. But then the danger grows, because of the great military power which Esau managed to establish before Jacob returned. And this delay is what he perceived as a sin.
With this in the background, it is possible to analyze Jacob’s moral status as compared to that of Esau. “‘And Jacob was very much afraid’ – perhaps he would be killed” (Rashi). The fear of being killed in war is natural. But the continuation of this comment is harder to understand. “‘He was distressed’ – perhaps he would kill others” (ibid). The word “others” (“acheirim“) is used as a nickname for Rabbi Meir (Horayot 13:2). The reason for this nickname (aside from historical events) is that it is a symbol of the hidden sanctity of Edom, which is linked to the birth of Rabbi Meir, a descendent of the Emperor Nero, who converted to Judaism to avoid attacking the Temple in Jerusalem (Gittin 56a). The very fact that there is holiness within the “other” brings with it the recognition that the opposite side has some value of its own. Jacob was afraid that if the “other” would be harmed, this might also cause harm to “acheirim” – Rabbi Meir, the future value that was destined to be extricated from Edom.
Source: “AS SHABBAT APPROACHES” – a biweekly column in Shabbat B’Shabbato, Vayishlach 5773, Volume 1451. (Zomet Institute) See: www.zomet.org.il/eng