The gemara states that a person shouldn’t be awake when others are asleep. But if this is so, why did Dovid Hamelech stay up at night learning and singing his Tehillim?
There’s a statement someplace, not in the gemara, but there’s a statement someplace (Derech Eretz perek 5) that you shouldn’t be awake among the sleeping. What it means is that when people are sleeping at night and you are walking in the streets, don’t make any noise! Don’t show others that you’re awake. It’s very bad manners when some people get up early in the morning and they stand on the street corner and yell across the street, “Hello Jerry! How are you doing?” And a lot of people who couldn’t sleep all night and just before morning they were finally able to doze off a little bit – it would save their lives if they could sleep that one hour before they have to get up. And all of a sudden this roughneck is standing on the corner, and he disregards everybody’s feelings and he wakes them up.
Now, there are a lot of gentiles – and Jews like gentiles – who stand in the street in the morning and shout and make noise, but even frum Jews sometimes make errors like that. If you’re walking down a sleeping street with someone, and you want to talk divrei Torah, then you must talk in a whisper. I was once walking with an elderly rabbi down a sleeping street and he was talking to me in a loud voice. I said “Shhh.” I said it once. I said it again, “Shhh.” But he didn’t catch on.
He never learned in those yeshivos where they spoke about it. He came maybe from the Hungarian yeshivos. I’m sure in Hungarian yeshivos they also taught good things, but I came from Lithuanian yeshivas where they spoke about these things all the time. Reb Yisroel Salanter said that if you steal sleep, you’re just as bad as any other thief – with one difference. You can’t fulfill the mitzvah of hashavas aveidah. You can’t return it.
And so, when people are asleep, don’t be awake among them – that means if you are awake, you don’t have to display it. Dovid Hamelech was awake when everyone else was asleep but he didn’t make any noise; he sat in his room and he studied Torah and he sang songs to Hakodosh Boruch Hu with his harp all night and he made sure not to cause anyone any discomfort.
In general what this means is that you shouldn’t be conspicuous. Try to conform with people. It doesn’t mean to follow the bad styles of wicked people — just because all the tramps wear frayed jeans, so you should also. No; there you have to have a backbone. You have to despise dumbbells who have no brains and just follow the crowd. I’m not talking about that. But when you’re among decent people, don’t try to show that you are a v’tzidkascha, that you’re even more frum than they are.
Don’t be too conspicuous. If you want to be a tzadik, do it in a subdued way. The gemara is full of admonitions against things that are מחזי כיוהרא, things that look like conceit. Even though it’s not conceit – your intentions are pure — but it looks like conceit. So don’t show off. Don’t try to be different; try to be like everybody else, to conform. Like the gemara says, לעולם תהא דעתו של אדם מעורבת עם הבריות – A man’s mind should always be mixed – that means in agreement – with other people. It doesn’t mean you should yield your principles. By no means. But ostensibly, for appearance’s sake, show that you go along with people.
So let’s say you daven in a nusach Ashkenaz place and it’s Monday or Thursday don’t do the same thing you do in the nusach sefard place; don’t fall tachanun right after chazaratz hashatz. Say והוא רחום with the people and fall tachanun along with them. The man who falls tachanun before והוא רחום on Mondays and Thursdays is a mechutzaf, he has no derech eretz. The same is if you daven in a nusach sfard minyan, and its Monday and Thursday, and they fall tachanun before והוא רחום, do it along with them. The mechutzaf who comes into a Lithuanian shul and he says ויצמח פורקניה, he deserves to get a potch. Don’t do it, but he deserves it! He’s a mechutzaf. Because what would happen if he went to a chasidisheh minyan and he left out the ויצמח פורקניה? He would get one!
So wherever you are, you conform. You conform! If you want to say כגוונא while the people are saying במה מדליקין do it quietly. But don’t display it. Whatever you do, try to follow the minhag of that place, and that’s called derech eretz. And that’s one of the big principles of life: לעולם אל תהא ער בין הישינים ואל תהי ישן בין הערים – Don’t be awake among the sleeping, or asleep among those who are awake.