No Kohen may defile himself for a dead person who is not one of his seven close relatives as enumerated in the Torah. Sforno explains the reason why a Kohen may not defile himself to a corpse. “The Kohen is a chief, a leader among his people, whose function is to learn and to teach as the Navi Malachi says (2:7), ‘For the Kohen’s lips shall preserve knowledge, and they should seek Torah from his mouth.’ It is, thus, proper that such an individual conduct himself as a prince, so that his words will be listened to. It is (thus) improper for him to profane his readiness toward the service of the Sanctuary – for the purpose of honoring the dead… For one’s (close) relatives, however, the Torah permits the Kohen to defile himself, for their honor is also his honor”. The Kohen must uphold the dignity due to his station of leadership. Occupying himself with a corpse would impede his ability to do so.
The Kohen’s relationship to the people as a mentor and halachic arbiter is in contrast with the accepted notion that in order for a rebbe to succeed in imparting knowledge to his students, he must feel and manifest love for them. To the degree that they know he loves and cares for them, his teaching will be effective. A student who feels that his rebbe does not really care for him is usually not one of the better students in the class. Why then did the Torah forbid the Kohen, who is Klal Yisrael’s spiritual mentor, from defiling himself to a corpse? On the contrary, by defiling himself, he demonstrates his closeness to the people, his abiding love for each and every Jew – regardless of his circumstances. Clearly, his involvement in preparing the deceased is not his most appealing function, but it shows that he cares. As a spiritual mentor, this should be one of his requisite credentials. Why is it prohibited?
Horav A. Henach Leibowitz, zl, derives from here that while it is certainly critical that the nation sense that the Kohen cares for and loves them, it is equally important that they recognize and acknowledge his eminence and distinction. While defiling himself to the dead demonstrates his love for the people, a vestige of his dignity is impugned. They view him through a different lens. Apparently, the sense of kavod, honor, that is added to the Kohen is greater in the long run than the sense of love (although, with less dignity) that ensues as a result of his defilement to the deceased.
Some mentors feel that descending to the level of the student is crucial for success in reaching the student. This is probably true for some students, but not necessarily true for others, as indicated by the laws of defilement regarding Kohanim. A spiritual mentor/rebbe should project and communicate his sincerely felt, reverential respect for the subject that he is teaching: Torah. He must believe in its indispensable value to the student, a belief that is conveyed via his continued enthusiasm for the material, and the respect that he shows to its significance in his life. When teaching Torah, the rebbe should promote an environment of dignity, respect and reverence as befits the lofty nature of the subject matter. Anything that detracts from this culture of dignity, limits the students’ ability to learn and benefit from its life-altering lessons.
Chazal teach that it is a great mitzvah to be involved with the necessities of kevurah, burial of the dead. Chevra Kaddisha is called just that – sacred – due to the sanctity of the nature of the work which the misaskim – dedicated volunteers who literally are oseik, involved, with the needs of the deceased and family – perform, bestowing the greatest honor on the deceased. Horav Yosef Chaim Sonenfeld, zl, was the head of the Chevra Kaddisha in the Old Yishuv and its Rav. In contemporary times, Horav David Feinstein, zl, filled in at a bakery on Purim, so that its owner could properly mourn his father. Clearly, the kavod of these and so many other gedolim was not diminished as a result of their devotion to the klal, community. We might say that, while this is all true, the Kohen in his role as spiritual mentor is still distinct from other mentors. The Torah writes (Ibid. 21:6), V’lo yechallelu shem Elokeihim; “And do not profane the Name of their G-d.” Sforno writes: “Although all those acts are for his (the Kohen’s) honor, he does not have permission to forgo Hashem’s honor, for, indeed, the intent of the Torah in honoring the Kohanim is for the purpose of enhancing the honor of Hashem (The Torah makes an exception to, or for the burial of, a Kohen’s relative. Because their honor is also his honor, one might think that all restrictive acts of mourning are waived, but the Torah teaches that they are not.) Hence, by forgoing their own honor, they thereby profane His Name. In other words, the Kohen’s responsibility extends beyond the students’. He is responsible to Hashem to uphold His honor, and anything which might in any way impugn that honor is prohibited.