The words ring out again and again in the biblical account of the Exodus story, as Moses repeatedly demands of the unrelenting Pharaoh that he grant the Jewish people their freedom.

Actually, the precise words that Moses conveys to the stubborn monarch in the name of G‑d are, “Shalach ami v’yaavduni,” “Let My people go so that they may serve Me.”

It is interesting to see how some expressions and phrases become memorable and popular, while others just don’t seem to catch on. “Let My People Go” became the theme song for the story of Egypt and the Exodus way beyond the Jewish community. It has been used as a catchphrase for a variety of political causes. Unfortunately, the last Hebrew word of the phrase somehow got lost in the shuffle: v’yaavduni—“that they may serve Me”—never quite made it to the top of the charts. The drama of the Exodus captures our imagination, while the fact that that the purpose of leaving Egypt was to go to Sinai, receive G‑d’s Torah and fulfill Jewish destiny is less emphasized. The call to freedom excites the human spirit; the challenge of service and commitment, by contrast, doesn’t seem to elicit as much enthusiasm.

I remember back in the early ’70s, when Jews the world over were demonstrating for their oppressed brethren in the then Soviet Union, demanding of the Russian government that they allow Jews the freedom to leave if they wanted to. Their rallying cry was, “Let My People Go!” Sadly, they left out the v’yaavduni. We were so concerned about political liberties that we forgot a primary purpose of being free: to enjoy religious freedom and live fulfilled Jewish lives.

Indeed, for so many of our Russian brethren, obtaining their exit visas and acquiring freedom of movement did little to help them reclaim their spiritual heritage and identity. Seventy years of organized atheism behind the Iron Curtain left their toll. We are delighted that they can live in Israel (or Brighton Beach), but the fact remains that far too many remain outside of the Jewish community and its spiritual orbit.

In my own backyard, here in South Africa, this idea has become blatantly obvious. We have now enjoyed over fifteen years of democracy. There have been four free and fair elections where all citizens have had the opportunity to cast their ballots. It was a long, hard struggle, but political freedom has been achieved. And yet, while confidence levels in our country’s future are at an all-time high, millions of people living here are still suffering from the very same hardships they endured under apartheid—ignorance, poverty and poor health. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu has castigated the country’s black leaders for allowing a situation where a small number of well-connected blacks have become enriched while the masses remain impoverished. HIV/AIDS is still public enemy number one, and even the family members of some of the most high-profile political figures have succumbed to the deadly disease.

It is clear that political freedom minus spiritual purpose equals disillusionment. Leaving Egypt without the vision of Sinai would be getting all dressed up with nowhere to go. It is not enough to let our people go. We have to take them somewhere. “That they may serve Me” means that we need to use our political freedom to experience the freedom and fulfillment of faith, and a life of spiritual purpose dedicated to G‑d’s service.