The story of Jonah being swallowed by a fish is one of the most colorful of biblical stories. The sages, careful readers that they were, noticed an unusual literary discrepancy in the story. When Jonah is first swallowed by the fish, the fish is referred to as a “dag” – a male fish (2:1). A sentence later, that same fish is referred to as a “daggah” – a female fish (2:2). This anomaly prompted the following midrashic “rewrite” of this popular story:
[When the sailors caste Jonah into the sea], the Holy One Blessed be He brought a big fish (dag) to swallow Jonah….as it is written: ‘The Lord provided a huge fish (dag) to swallow Jonah.” (Jonah 2:1) Jonah entered the fish’s mouth like someone who enters into a large synagogue. The fish’s eyes were like two large windows for Jonah to see through…[Jonah and the fish go through a series of adventures all of which cause Jonah great fulfillment until they come opposite the Holy Temple] The fish said to Jonah: ‘Behold you are directly opposite God’s sanctuary, pray and you will be answered.’ But Jonah remained three days in the belly of the fish and still did not pray. God said [to Himself]: ‘I provided him [Jonah] with comfortable quarters in the belly of the fish and he did not pray before Me. So, now, I will provide for him a pregnant fish (daggah) filled with three hundred and sixty-five thousand baby fish in order to cause him sufficient discomfort so that he might pray before me… The male fish eventually spewed Jonah from its belly and he was swallowed by the pregnant fish. Once he was in the pregnant fish, the crowded conditions and the filth caused him great anguish. Only then did he pray before the Holy One Blessed Be He so that He might escape from the pregnant fish… (adapted from Midrash Jonah in Beit Hamidrash – Jellineck 1)
Some people, like Jonah in this story, need a special incentive to initiate their relationship with God. When things were good, Jonah was not interested in seeking God. Only when he faced tribulation was his interest piqued. Jonah serves as an example of the person who returns to God for ulterior motives (שלא לשמה). While his religious intentions were not ideal, still, what is important is his ultimate repentance (תשובה). Still, it is much better to develop our relations with God out of love (לשמה – for its own sake), rather than to wait for trials and tribulations to raise our awareness and prompt us to action.