Rashi explains: “‘Yaakov was extremely afraid’ – lest he be killed. ‘And distressed’ – that he may have kill others.”
The Dubno Maggid explains this with a parable: There was a town that had several residents who were ill, but there was no doctor in town to treat them. Near this town, there was a large city that was home to the governor of the entire district. The city was fortunate to have a prominent physician to tend to its sick.
There was one person in the small town who was related to the governor. One day, this man woke up with a slight headache. It was not a severe headache, and it did not really require any special medical care. Nevertheless, the man began to groan loudly, and sent a message to his relative, the governor, asking him to please send the doctor to him.
“Your headache is so minor. Why are you groaning so much?” the man’s family asked him.
“Fools,” he responded. “Do you really think that I am groaning for my own sake? I want the doctor to be sent to our town and then we can get him to treat those who are truly ill and are suffering so much. I know that the governor would not send the doctor for their sake. I am therefore pretending to be ill, and I’m hoping that the governor will send the doctor for me. Once the doctor arrives, he will be able to provide services to all those in need.”
So too, continued the Maggid, there are “small” generations, when the Jewish people don’t have enough merits to deserve Divine protection. The Holy One foresaw this and therefore placed our great forefathers in situations that would prompt them to pray for the welfare of their children and descendants in future generations.
Yaakov Avinu, concluded the Maggid, was certainly capable of defeating Eisav. Yet he beseeched Hashem, “Rescue me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Eisav” (32:12). For even though I can overcome the wicked Eisav, what will be with my descendants? Yaakov, was not merely praying for his own survival, but, rather, for the survival of all the ensuing generations of Jews as well. This is what the pasuk states (Tehillim 20:2): “May Hashem answer you on the day of distress; may the Name of Yaakov’s G-d make you impregnable.”