Hebrew Wind and Chinese Breath


« The earth was tohu and bohu, darkness covered the abyss, a wind of God (וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים , ruah Elohim) was moving over the waters.”i

Tohu means « astonishment, amazement » and bohu means « emptiness, loneliness », explains Rashi, who adds: « Man is seized with amazement and horror in the presence of emptiness.”

Man was amazed and horrified? But how could this be done? Man was only created on the 6th day, when the emptiness had already been partly filled by light, the firmament, the land and the seas, the light fixtures and a multitude of living beings. But this is not necessarily contradictory. It is inferred that Rashi is referring to the « astonishment and horror » that man felt long after the tohu and bohu were created, when man began to reflect on the origins.

However, this reflection has not ceased and is still relevant today.

So there are two kinds of men, if we follow the path indicated by Rashi. Those who feel « amazement and horror » when they think about the hustle and bustle of the origins, and those who are in no way moved by this kind of thinking.

Above the emptiness, above the abyss, above the bohu, « a wind of God » was moving. The word רוּחַ, ruah, is very ambivalent and can mean wind, breath, spirit, soul, depending on the context. Translating here as « a wind » as the Jerusalem Bible does seems to favour a more meteorological or geo-physical approach to these original times. This translation uses the indefinite article (« a wind ») which indicates a certain non-differentiation, a possible multiplicity of other « winds » that God would not have put into action.

The Bible of the French Rabbinate translates ruah Elohim as « the breath of God ». Rashi comments: « The throne of the Divine Majesty stood in the air and hovered on the surface of the waters by the sole force of the breath of the word of the Holy One, and by His order. Like a dove hovering over its nest.”

This comment by Rashi calls for another comment, – from my modest part.

To explain just one word, ruah, Rashi uses four more words. First an expression of three words: « the strength of the breath of the word » of the Holy One, blessed be He, and a fourth word that clarifies its meaning: « by His order ». To this are added two more images, that of the « Throne of the Divine Majesty », and a comparison of the ruah with « the dove hovering over its nest ». The « wind of God » hovering in front of the loneliness of the bohu is thus well surrounded.

It is generally one of the roles of the commentator to multiply the possible outbursts of meaning, and to make promises glimmer. It is apparent from Rashi’s commentary that not only was the ruah not alone in the beginning, but that it bore, so to speak, the Throne of God, in His Majesty, and that it was accompanied by His Word and His Order (i.e. His Power). A curious trinity, for a monotheism that claims to be pure of all kind of trinitarian idolatry.

Now let us change era, and air. Let’s go East.

The same idea of « original breath » is expressed in Chinese by the two caractères元气 , yuánqì. The two ideograms used are: 元 , yuán, origin and 气 , , breath.

The is the vital breath. It is the fundamental principle of life, which animates all beings. After death, the continues to live in the afterlife. The embodies the essence of a universe that is constantly changing. It constantly circulates and connects things and beings.

takes different forms. We can distinguish the original ( yuánqì,元气), the primordial (yuánqì 元氣), the prenatal (jīng 精), the of the mind and the of the soul (shén 神), etc.

Archaeological traces of the character have been found, engraved on turtle shells. It was originally represented by three horizontal bars, supposed to evoke steam or mist. The also appears on a jade jewel dating from the period of the Fighting Kingdoms (-403 to -256), in the form of the sinogram 炁 , composed of the radical 灬, which refers to fire (huǒ 火). During the Han Dynasty (from -206 to 220), is represented by a sinogram combining steam 气 and fire 火.

In the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279) the is represented by the sinogram 氣 which refers to the steam emanating from the cooking of rice. It is still used today, and illustrates the material and immaterial nature of the concept. Its key is the pictogram 气 () which represents a cloud.

The lower part of the sinogram is the pictogram 米 (), which represents grains of rice and means « rice ». The character 氣 expresses the idea of rice boiling in the pot.

The sinogram writes as a mixture, immaterial and ethereal (steam), dense and material (rice).

In Genesis, the movement of the divine breath precedes the separation of heaven and earth, and then the creation of living beings; in Chinese cosmology, too, the breath ( 气) precedes the separation of yin and yang, which is itself the origin of the « ten thousand beings » (wànwù 万物), that is to say all beings and indirectly the things that make up the world.

In Chinese thought, is at work in the reign of the living and in the mineral reign. For example, the veins of jade are considered to be organized by just like the veins of the human body. Chinese painting depicts the geological strata of mountains, which are one of the macro-cosmic manifestations of , and the aesthetics of a canvas depends on the capture of this breath.

nourishes thought and spiritual life and has a certain relationship with the divine shén 神, whose deep meaning is etymologically linked to the characters « to say » and « to show, to reveal ». The divine is not in the , that is to say, but the can be used by the divine.

The is ‘breath, wind’, the divine (shén) is ‘word, revelation’.

The divine is not in the ‘wind’ or the ‘breath’, it is in the ‘word’, – far from any materialism of cloudy emanations, or cooking vapors.

Throughout the ages, cultures and languages, the ancient metaphors of wind and breath still inspire us.

Energy comes from the world and brings it to life. But for the Hebrews and the Chinese, the divine is not of the world. The divine is not in the wind.

The Divine, or the Word, may be in the world, but they are not of the world…

iGen. 1,2

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