This phrase may sound like the worst contract possible. It says, in other words, “we shall follow and then we will hear.” This is what the Israelites said to Moses as he was reading to them the detailed laws given to him by God. These laws are the laws of the Torah, and they were characterized as a contract between the people of Israel and God.
It would have been more reasonable if the Israelites had reversed the order of the words and had said: ‘nish•ma ve•na•ase,’ which reverses the meaning into: ‘we will hear and we shall follow.’ Yet, the people are saying to Moses: ‘na•a•se ve•nish•ma.’ This is a commitment to follow the contract before learning its details. This phrase was rightfully described as the ultimate statement of faith and trust in God. The English translation is quite different:
“And he took the Book of the Covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, ‘All that the Lord has said will we do, and obey.'”
Nevertheless, even in its English version, it is still a strong statement of faith and trust in God, and it is still being said without taking the time to learn the details of the ‘contract.’ However, the translation of ‘nish•ma’ as ‘obey’ instead of ‘hear’ takes away some of the power of the Hebrew verse. It is true that the verb ‘she•ma’ (the same root word of ‘nish•ma’) may mean both ‘hear’ and ‘obey.’ Yet, the famous phrase (and prayer), ‘She•ma,’ has always been translated as ‘Hear, O Israel’ and not as ‘Obey, O Israel.’ You can find it four times in the Old Testament and once in the New Testament with the same exact translation:
“Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord”