Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz writes:
Competitiveness exists among animals;
“King of the Hill” is a game that even little kittens know, and it is not the hill that matters, but who is on top.
Even the natural forces themselves—fire and water, heaven and earth—can be depicted as being in envious competition with each other.
From what we know about angels, it seems that even among them there exists some rivalry and jealousy.
Envy cannot and ought not to be ignored; It can be utilized for good.
Our sages say that all envy is bad, except the envy of scholars, Kinat Soferim.
This kind of envy can inspire a person to attain a higher level.
The same sort of competitiveness that can be seen in sports, or in the desire to obtain material possessions, can also apply to nonmaterial possessions such as wisdom, knowledge, even saintliness.
As odd as it may seem, a person’s envy of spiritual superiority, and the desire not just to imitate, but to outdo, can become a creative, growth-inducing power.
Universities, think tanks, and symposia that bring scholars together use this inner mechanism to generate intellectual growth.
A fair amount of philanthropy, too, comes from competition and envy.
Competition of this sort may create a certain amount of greatness.
There is, of course, a touch—sometimes more than a touch—of ego here, but altogether, the outcome is positive.
–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz